Takeaway: Read what worked for the only four states in which FAFSA completion rates both exceeded the national completion rate and were higher in lower-income districts than in higher-income districts.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form prepared annually by current and prospective college students (undergraduate and graduate) to determine their eligibility for student financial aid. Completing the FAFSA creates opportunities for more equitable access to higher education because it is a gateway for receiving the Pell Grant — a federal grant reserved for low-income students — and federal student loans, which have much lower interest rates than private loans. These additional funds secured by completing the FAFSA often make or break a student’s decision to attend college.

Despite the benefits of completing the form, low-income students often fail to do so because they are misinformed or completely uninformed about federal financial aid. In April 2017, NCAN published research demonstrating that, on average, there is a negative relationship between high school FAFSA completion rates and school district poverty. In fact, there are only four states in which FAFSA completion rates both exceed the national completion rate and are higher in lower-income districts than in higher income districts. Those states are California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

NCAN interviewed organizational leaders within each of these four states and analyzed each organization’s online resources to understand how the states promote equitable FAFSA completion. Eleven common themes emerged:

  1. FAFSA completion is important, especially for low-income students.
  2. Organizations are targeting low-income students for FAFSA completion, but they are unsure about their target FAFSA completion rates.
  3. FAFSA Completion is a community-wide effort, meaning that it is everybody’s responsibility to increase it.
  4. Partnerships are a key to success.
  5. Capacity is an issue for organizations and agencies, but funding and partnerships can help.
  6. FAFSA completion events are essential pieces of FAFSA completion initiatives and so is tailoring outreach and support to meet the needs of the population.
  7. Accessible and clear resources for students and parents are essential in FAFSA completion efforts.
  8. Investment in college access professionals trickles down to students.
  9. Collecting data on FAFSA completion helps keep organizations accountable and sharing student-level completion data helps increase FAFSA completion.
  10. Statewide or regional agencies are important stakeholders in raising FAFSA completion.
  11. Early FAFSA was beneficial for students, yet the time crunch was challenging for college access professionals to adjust to.

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