On College Signing Day, A Look at FAFSA Completion Rates

Today is College Signing Day, a day to celebrate students and their commitment to complete their education beyond high school. It’s timed for May 1st to mark the deadline for high school seniors to send in their commitment to the college or university that they will attend next year.

In honor of College Signing Day, I decided to calculate state-level completion rates of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). See the table below for the full results. Students need to complete a number of milestones on their way to postsecondary education, and filing for financial aid is one of them. Typically, any student who wants or needs financial support from the federal government, states, or colleges and universities to pay for higher education must complete the FAFSA. One estimate suggests that students who fail to complete the FAFSA leave over $2.9 billion in federal grant money on the table.

For the last few years, the U.S. Department of Education has released FAFSA completion data by high school on a real-time basis, allowing schools, states, and the general public to track progress. To estimate state-level completion rates, I downloaded the data, added up the totals, and divided them by the total number of high school seniors in the state (*Please see note at end of post on data sources and caveats).

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that one state, Tennessee, shows what progress looks like. As a result of the Tennessee Promise to offer all students two years of free community college, my data suggests Tennessee’s FAFSA completion rates jumped 12 percentage points, from 49 to 61 percent. Tennessee alone accounted for more than 40 percent of the gain in FAFSA completions across the entire country. It not only had the largest year-over-year increase this year, Tennessee also leads the country in getting its students to complete the FAFSA.

Now the bad news. While a few states boosted their FAFSA completion rates by 2-3 percentage points, notably Colorado, New Mexico, and Delaware, nationwide the FAFSA completion rate barely crawled upward. As of today, only about 40.8 percent of high school seniors have completed a FAFSA, compared to 40.2 percent a year ago. Twenty-two states actually had their rates decline, and in eight states less than one-third high school students have completed their FAFSA. Less than one-quarter of Alaska’s students have completed the form, and less than one-in-five have done so in Utah.

The FAFSA completion rates may rise by the end of the year–last year the national rate climbed to almost 55 percent by the end of December–but students who file later in the year may be ineligible for state or institutional grant aid that’s often apportioned on a first-come, first-served basis.

We also haven’t gotten any better at helping students complete the FAFSA once they start it. Nationwide, 104,288 high school seniors started filling out their FAFSA only to stop in the middle of it. That’s up from 90,000 a year ago. Whether the form is too complex, students don’t have the right information, or it simply takes too long, we still have a ways to go in ensuring that students are able to easily apply for federal financial aid.

States and school districts could be doing a much better job ensuring their students are prepared financially for life after high school. On College Signing Day, take a moment to see how your state ranks:

Rank State Estimated FAFSA Completion Rate as of April 17, 2015
1 Tennessee 61.5%
2 District of Columbia 54.6%
3 Rhode Island 52.6%
4 Massachusetts 51.5%
5 Indiana 51.1%
6 Delaware 50.6%
7 Illinois 49.8%
8 Kentucky 48.5%
9 Connecticut 48.2%
10 West Virginia 48.0%
11 New Jersey 47.1%
12 Maine 46.7%
13 Hawaii 46.3%
14 New York 45.7%
15 New Hampshire 45.4%
16 Maryland 45.4%
17 Ohio 44.4%
18 California 43.5%
19 Michigan 43.3%
20 Missouri 42.1%
21 Pennsylvania 42.1%
22 Virginia 41.9%
23 Iowa 41.6%
24 Vermont 41.3%
25 Nebraska 40.4%
26 North Carolina 40.1%
27 Montana 40.1%
28 South Dakota 40.0%
29 Wisconsin 39.7%
30 Kansas 39.0%
31 Arkansas 38.7%
32 Idaho 38.5%
33 South Carolina 37.9%
34 Oregon 35.7%
35 Minnesota 35.6%
36 Mississippi 35.5%
37 North Dakota 35.5%
38 Texas 34.8%
39 Georgia 34.6%
40 New Mexico 34.4%
41 Washington 34.4%
42 Colorado 33.9%
43 Oklahoma 33.5%
44 Wyoming 33.3%
45 Louisiana 32.6%
46 Florida 31.2%
47 Alabama 30.8%
48 Nevada 30.6%
49 Arizona 26.9%
50 Alaska 24.5%
51 Utah 18.6%

*Note: To calculate state-level FAFSA completion rates, I used the FAFSA completion figures provided by the U.S. Department of Education as of April 17, 2015. See here for details on the data collection, including limitations with the dataset. Since the federal government does not report high school enrollment for the current year, I used the 2012-13 public high school grade 12 enrollment figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Because these numbers exclude private school students, I added in the most recent data from NCES on private high school graduates. The data are a few years old and focus on high school graduates, not just 12th grade students. For all of these reasons, please consider the figures above as mere estimates used for illustrative purposes. Although I have reason to believe the directionality of the data are accurate, the estimates above understood with these caveats in mind.