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March 17, 2014 5:00 PM States See Very Different FAFSA Completion Rates

By Daniel Luzer

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an important document for aspiring college students, particularly poor ones, to complete because it determines a student’s level of financial funding.

Some studies indicate that there’s a 25 increase in the likelihood of students enrolling in college if they just fill out the FAFSA.

The application is not exactly user-friendly, so getting students to fill out the application is often something of a challenge for high schools.

The results are in. This year less than 55 percent of American high school seniors completed the FAFSA. This map from Ed Central shows the distribution by state:

FAFSAByState

Completion rates are much higher in New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey than in Alaska and Utah, for instance.

Because some states, it turns out, are a lot better at completing FAFSA than others. Why is this? It’s the exact same FAFSA form, after all.

One thing is that some students have a lot more access to computers than others. Some have better educated parents (who help with FAFSA when kids have questions) And some states have a lot more kids planning to go to college. Or, in other words, this is about poverty and social class, again.

The blog post at Ed Central indicates that high schools see much higher completion rates if they just devote a little time to the project and sit students down to complete the form. But budget cuts and preparation for standardized test mean that “extras” like these are often the first thing schools cut.

The data comes from the office of Federal Student Aid, Department of Education, which indicates that “our students cannot afford to forgo Federal and other aid that could help them attend college and earn a degree or certificate,” and bemoans the fact that “millions of students do not file a FAFSA each year, and many who do not file may be eligible for Federal student aid.”

As I’ve written before, the trouble with this sort of concern trolling is that it acts as a barrier to solving the problem.

The Department of Education is the organization responsible for the form. It’s useful that the Department is providing this information to the American public, but if it’s important for more students to fill out FAFSA, the Department should make the form a lot easier for high school students to complete.

According tomost critics, the FAFSA is needlessly complex and fails to help students really afford college.

According to a proposal assessed by the Congressional Budget Office last year, it might be more effective to calculate financial aid using just tax returns, and base Pell Grant eligibility only on income and family size alone.

If Congress implemented those changes, the Department of Education would issue about 2 percent more grants averaging $1,500 - some to newly eligible students who wouldn’t have to report that income now, and some to new would-be students who otherwise wouldn’t have applied because the application was too complex. Additionally, about 20 percent of the grants that are already awarded would be larger under the new formula, by about $350 on average. Those changes would cost only about $1 billion annually, or $10 billion over the 10-year budget window - a low cost relative to the numbers of new students who might apply for and graduate from college.

This is what we really need to do if we really want more children to get to, and through college. We just need to make financial aid simpler. There’s no other way to do this effectively.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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