(Note: This post is an updated version of my 2015 piece on the same topic. The data are new for 2016.)
Tomorrow is College Signing Day, a day to celebrate students and their commitment to complete their education beyond high school.
In anticipation of the day’s events, I pulled the latest state-level data on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates. See the table below for the full results. The numbers are mostly bad news: FAFSA completion rates are down a bit nationally, and only five states have seen increases this year.
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 applying for financial aid from the federal government, states, or a specific college 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 below on data sources and caveats).
First, the good news. Five states — Oregon, West Virginia, Utah, North Carolina, and Texas — all increased their completion rates this year. Thirteen states have higher rates this year than they did in 2014. Most notable among those is Tennessee, which jumped 13 percentage points in 2015 alone. Tennessee dipped slightly this year, by 0.2 percent, but it’s still leading the country by a wide margin. Tennessee has a 62.3 percent FAFSA completion rate, 10 points ahead of second-place Massachusetts.
But this year’s results are mostly bad news. Nationally, the completion rate fell from 40.9 percent this time last year to 39.6 percent this year. As a comparison, consider that about 66 percent of high school graduates go directly into some form of higher education. That represents a sizable gap between the students who go to college and the students who file for financial aid.
The numbers are also going in the wrong direction. 45 states plus DC are behind their pace from last year, and 37 states plus DC are down from 2014. This could reflect continued improvements in the labor market and the broader declines in college-going rates, but it’s nonetheless a worrying trend.
Arizona, Alaska, and Utah continue to have the worst FAFSA completion rates in the country. This year, they each have FAFSA completion rates below 25 percent. These states have moderately low college-going rates, but that doesn’t entirely explain their poor performance on FAFSA completion.
The completion rates will rise by the end of the year — last year the national rate rose 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.
Despite lots of national attention to the importance of FAFSA completion, we’ve gotten worse at helping students actually complete it. This year, 143,000 high school seniors have started filling out their FAFSA only to stop before completing it. That’s up from 107,000 at this time last year and from 90,000 in 2014. (Most of these students will never finish. The number of students who begin but don’t complete their FAFSA rises throughout the year.)
Another way to look at these numbers is to note that, of all the students who began a FAFSA this year, 8.5 percent did not complete it. That’s up from about 6.5 percent last year. Whether the form was too complex, students didn’t have the right information, or it simply took too long, we still have a ways to go in ensuring that all students are able to easily apply for financial aid. A new change which will allow students to use this year’s tax returns to fill out their FAFSA next year may help, because students will no longer have to wait on their parents’ taxes to apply for financial aid.
But in the meantime, states and school districts could be doing a much better job ensuring their students are prepared financially for life after high school. This College Signing Day, take a moment to see how your state ranks:
|Rank||State||Estimated FAFSA Completion Rate as of April 15, 2016|
|3||District of Columbia||51.4%|
*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 15, 2016. See here for details on the data collection, including limitations with the dataset. Year-to-year comparisons look at April 15th of each year. Since the federal government does not report high school enrollment for the current year, I used the 2013-14 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 are best understood with these caveats in mind.