College & Workforce Readiness

Where Students Need Financial Aid the Most, Fewer Apply, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — April 24, 2017 2 min read
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In school districts where students have the greatest need for financial aid, fewer students apply than in wealthier districts where students need it less.

That’s the finding from the first national study to examine the correlation between a school district’s wealth and its FAFSA application rate. The poorer the school district, the less likely students are to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh conducted the research for the National College Access Network, using district-level FAFSA completion data the U.S. Department of Education made available last June. They examined the districts state by state, and found that in most states, the higher a district’s poverty rate, the lower its FAFSA completion rate.

Each 10-percentage-point increase in a district’s poverty rate tends to be accompanied by a 3-percentage-point decline in its FAFSA completion rate, the study found.

Some states proved to be exceptions to the rule.

Tennessee topped the list of states with consistently high FAFSA completion rates across various levels of district poverty, and still maintained a relatively narrow gap (8 points) between the completion rates in the wealthier and less-wealthy districts. Some states had smaller gaps, but lower overall FAFSA completion rates.

A few states showed a positive, but weak, relationship between high rates of poverty and higher rates of FAFSA completion. In one state, Utah, there was a strong relationship between FAFSA filing rates and high rates of poverty, but Utah is also the state with the lowest FAFSA-filing rate in the country. In Oregon and California, there appeared to be no relationship between the rates of district poverty and FAFSA completion.

By and large, most states showed significant gaps in FAFSA completion rates from district to district. They were the biggest in Vermont and Wisconsin. In those states, the difference in completion rates between low-income and wealthy districts was 19 percentage points, the report found.

The authors of the study urge policymakers to take the findings to heart as they shape programs to encourage completion of the FAFSA, which has long been known to be a key door opener—or stumbling block—for low-income students aiming for college.

Not only do states need to focus attention on improving their overall FAFSA completion rates, the study says, they should consider funneling particular effort into FAFSA awareness and completion initiatives in high-poverty districts.

“Lower-income districts have more poor students who need higher amounts of aid; thus, those districts should have higher FAFSA completion rates. Yet the opposite is true, demonstrating that low-income students are still facing barriers in accessing financial aid for college,” the NCAN says in a statement released with the study.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.