Divided We Learn

Are too few college students asking for federal aid?

FAFSA completion rate stagnated, despite the rising cost of college

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Students and their families may not be doing all they can to get financial aid for college.

The completion rate for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, among 2018 high school graduates barely improved from the class of 2017, according to a July report from the nonprofit organization National College Access Network.

For the class of 2018, 60.9 percent of graduates completed the FAFSA by June 29; among 2017 graduates, 60.6 percent had completed the form by June 30 of that year.

Filling out the FAFSA is the first step for getting federal financial aid, and often the first step for getting school-specific scholarships. Considering how expensive college is becoming, many students will need the money.

The price for tuition, fees, and room and board rose 34 percent, when inflation is factored in, between the 2005-2006 and 2015-2016 school years at public colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At private institutions, it rose 26 percent. The average financial aid award was $14,400 in the 2016-2017 school year for a full-time student, according to the College Board.

Aside from losing out on loans, grants and scholarships that can reduce the cost of a bachelor’s degree, there are bigger implications that come with not completing the FAFSA.

“Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the best predictors of whether a high school senior will go on to college, as seniors who complete the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education,” according to the National College Access Network, which advocates for college access, especially for underrepresented students.

The Department of Education estimates that it takes about an hour to complete the FAFSA, but others have heavily criticized the form as being too long and complicated.

Related: In an era of inequity, more and more college financial aid is going to the rich

“I have heard from people across Washington state how complicated and difficult filling out the application can be, and I know my colleagues have heard the same thing,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said at a November Senate hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. “Simplifying FAFSA would help ease the burden of college costs for students who may be leaving money on the table.”

At that same hearing, the chairman of the HELP committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.), said: “Nearly 20 million students fill out the FAFSA every year and we have heard over and over that the 108-question form is difficult to complete and its complexity discourages students from applying.”

The website for FAFSA – fafsa.gov – is slated to be revamped this summer. A message on its homepage states: “This summer, Federal Student Aid will release an updated version of the online FAFSA form featuring a modernized home page, an easier-to-follow question flow, and improved technology that allows the application to better display across desktops, laptops, tablets and cell phones!”

The Education Department offers an eight-step guide for completing FAFSA and has outlined 12 common mistakes that prevent people from getting all the money that may be available to them.

Many factors can affect the FAFSA completion rate, but one that stands out is the economy. When it’s doing well, fewer students see a need to apply to college, especially if it means taking on debt.

“FAFSA completion and college-going are countercyclical to the health of the economy,” the NCAN report stated. “Given the low national unemployment rate, the relative strength of the American economy is not likely to push prospective students on the margin to enroll.”

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where… See Archive

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