By Andrew Smalley
For college-bound students, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the most important step when it comes to obtaining a variety of federal and state financial aid supports.
But while the FAFSA is required to determine eligibility for federal student aid, including Pell Grants, low-cost student loans and federal work-study programs, in 2018 only 60.9% of high school graduates completed the form.
And FAFSA completion rates vary drastically by state.
In 2018, nine states, including North Dakota, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington, Arizona, Alaska and Utah, saw fewer than half of graduating high school seniors complete a FAFSA. Only Tennessee and Louisiana had completion rates above 75%. A survey from the U.S. Department of Education found that 15% of students who did not complete a FAFSA responded that they did not know they could have completed the form and 9% of students thought the process was too time-consuming.
These low completion rates have serious financial impacts on students. A study by NerdWallet found that the high school graduating class of 2018 missed out on $2.6 billion in available federal aid because eligible students did not complete the FAFSA. The same study found that students who did not fill out a FAFSA could have received an average of nearly $4,000 each in federal grant aid for college. According to the National College Access Network, high school seniors who complete the FAFSA are 63% more likely to enroll in postsecondary education.
To get more high school students to complete the FAFSA, several states have begun adding FAFSA completion to state graduation requirements. In 2016, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education became the first state agency to require graduating seniors to complete the FAFSA before graduation. The requirement allows for parental opt-out waivers and removes the requirement if a student is planning to join the military after graduation.
Since this requirement has been added, the state has seen a more than 25% increase in FAFSA completions. In the 2018-2019 FAFSA cycle, Louisiana led the nation with 77.1% of high school seniors completing the form.
In 2019, Texas became the first state to pass legislation to require FAFSA completion with the passage of HB 3, which included language to require FAFSA completion beginning in 2021. Illinois also passed HB 2719, which requires FAFSA completion for high school seniors beginning next fall. Both bills contain opt-out waivers similar to Louisiana’s system.
The renewed focus on FAFSA completion comes as federal lawmakers and officials look to drastically simplify the form’s process. Last year, the Department of Education created the option of filling out the FAFSA via a mobile app for phones and tablets, and on a revamped website that’s mobile-friendly. And, recently, members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions announced a bipartisan compromise that includes a provision to trim the number of questions on the FAFSA form by more than 20%.
Additional states are likely to consider FAFSA completion requirement legislation in 2020, with hopes of increasing applications and providing more aid to students seeking postsecondary education.
Andrew Smalley is a research analyst with NCSL's Education Program.