News stories covering the rising price of a higher education are disconcerting for anyone planning to attend college—but for low-income students, these stories are particularly discouraging. That’s because these students are the most likely to see rising tuition as a barrier to attending college. And although billions of dollars in federal programs exist to help low-income students afford college, many never receive assistance because they do not complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Submitting the FAFSA is the first step in receiving a financial aid package. Once they have that, students can begin to calculate their true costs of college, and perhaps it won’t be as expensive as news stories had led them to believe.
The map below uses data released earlier this year by the Department of Education (DOE) to show the share of high school seniors in each state that completed the FAFSA*. The data show that on average, less than 55 percent of seniors complete the FAFSA in each state. That’s an especially alarming statistic given that studies demonstrate a 25 to 30 percent increase in the likelihood of low and middle-income students enrolling in college if they simply complete the FAFSA.
In 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study to see whether simplifying and improving access to information about the FAFSA could increase college enrollment. Researchers placed low- and middle-income students into one of three groups. The first were students who received direct help from H&R Block tax professionals in completing the FAFSA. Students in the second group were given their personal eligibility information and the cost of tuition for nearby colleges, but no direct assistance. And a third group was given nothing at all. When the researchers compared the outcomes of all three groups, they found that the students who received direct assistance with the FAFSA had college enrollment rates 29 percent higher than the control group. Additionally, the FAFSA treatment group saw a 33 percent increase in the number of Pell Grant recipients compared to the control group. Meanwhile, students who received only personal aid eligibility information, but no direct assistance, enrolled in college at the same rates with a similar number of Pell Grant recipients as the group that received nothing at all. These results suggest that providing information alone isn't enough, but direct assistance with the FAFSA can significantly improve college access.
Although the cost per participant in the H&R Block experiment was only $87.50, it hardly seems realistic to assign a tax professional to every high school senior in America. Fortunately, there is another professional who every high school senior already has access to for help with the FAFSA: guidance counselors. High school counselors exist to help illuminate the path to college, and one way they can do that is by assisting students with completing the FAFSA.
The problem is that school districts facing tight budget constraints are more likely to hire a math or science teacher than a guidance counselor. As it stands, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 471 to one – far above the American School Counselor Association’s recommended ratio of 250 to one. So perhaps it isn’t such a coincidence that Utah and Arizona, which have two of the lowest FAFSA completion rates at 33 percent and 41 percent, respectively, also have two of the highest student-to-school-counselor ratios in the country at 726 to one and 861 to one.
Other resources for students include the College Advising Corps, a program that helps disadvantaged high schools students navigate the college application process, including filling out financial aid forms. The program currently employees 375 advisers in 15 states, but has plans to increase that number to 500 by the end of the year.
Currently the DOE's Federal Student Aid website reports how many students from each high school has completed the FAFSA. Better coordination between the DOE and individual states could help identify which students have not yet completed their FAFSA. States could then deploy resources to targeted school districts to increase completion rates.
At the very least, students deserve to know the price tag they’re in for if they choose to go to college. For low-income students, that figure will likely be lower than what they might have guessed before filling out the FAFSA. The decision to go to college isn't worth risking on a guess – but assisting students with their FAFSAs can reduce that risk.
*Details on the FAFSA completion numbers can be found here. To calculate the state-level completion rates, the numerator is the total number of completed FAFSA applications that the Department of Education provided. This number excludes any school that had fewer than five students that completed the FAFSA. The denominator, the total number of high school seniors (public and private) in that state, is reported from the National Center for Education Statistics website."