FAFSA: A Gatekeeper to Postsecondary Access
By Damian Ramsey
Imagine winning the lottery and refusing to redeem your ticket. You would leave potentially life-changing sums of money on the table. In a sense, that is what happens when high school graduates do not complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Each year, thousands of students fail to complete the FAFSA, leaving nearly $3.4 billion in financial aid unclaimed. For low-income, first-generation, and BIPOC students (including dual-language learners and students from mixed immigration status households), the FAFSA can be that lottery ticket that changes the trajectory of their lives.
A prerequisite to obtaining an affordable or even debt free degree, the FAFSA is a form students and families must complete to access need-based and merit-based scholarships, and to secure part of the more than $120 billion in financial aid the government provides annually to pay for college (2-year, 4-year, or technical programs). However, securing financial aid is not the only reason to apply.
The FAFSA is critical to postsecondary success. Studies indicate that submitting the FAFSA increases postsecondary enrollment, postsecondary persistence, and earning potential. Students who complete the FAFSA are 35% more likely to enroll in college directly from high school, and each additional $1,000 that a student secures in aid, increases their college persistence rate by four percent. In addition, bachelor’s degree holders earn on average, $32,000 more per year than those with just a high school diploma.
Unfortunately, students who could benefit the most from financial aid are the least likely to complete the FAFSA. A recent study by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) found that for every 10 percent increase in the proportion of low-income students, a school district’s FAFSA completion rate decreased by three percent. Another study found that in 2018, 34% of Latinx students and 26% of Black students nationally did not complete FAFSA, compared to 18% of white students.
Why are low-income, first-generation, and BIPOC students not cashing in on this opportunity? Individual reasons vary, but research suggests that the most common challenges are limited knowledge about what the FAFSA is and how to apply; feelings that the application is too cumbersome; and for undocumented students and families, concerns about the potential of revealing their status to the government. These issues discourage them from completing the FAFSA in spite of financial need, and account for some of the inequities in postsecondary enrollment that exist nationwide.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these inequities, compelling many low-income and BIPOC students to reconsider the viability of postsecondary education. Concerns about paying tuition, incurring debt, and supporting their families financially are among their most pressing considerations. A quarter of a million fewer students completed their FAFSA since the onset of the pandemic, reducing postsecondary enrollment nationwide by 2.5%, nearly twice the rate of the previous year.
To help mitigate these declines and increase postsecondary enrollment throughout metro Atlanta, Learn4Life has joined forces with United Way’s College Bound Initiative and The Scholarship Academy. Together, they are harnessing the power of collective impact to offer a comprehensive suite of supports to add capacity to school counseling teams: free FAFSA training for staff and community volunteers, in-person and virtual FAFSA completion events, one-to-one office hours, marketing materials, scholarship resources, and incentives for completion.
Students need help navigating through the challenges of the pandemic. By working together, we can provide Atlanta Metro’s most vulnerable students with direct support to overcome obstacles to FAFSA completion and improve their chances for postsecondary success.
If you’re a parent, or from a school, nonprofit, community organization, or business, and you’d like to join our collective impact work to improve postsecondary outcomes in metro Atlanta, let us know here. We’d love to have your voice at the table.