Legislation aims to increase FAFSA completion – Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

Legislation aims to increase FAFSA completion

House Bill 87 of the 2020 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly aims to increase the number of students completing the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – by making it a high school graduation requirement.

The legislation would allow waivers of the requirement under certain circumstance for hardship or if a student/parent certifies they understand the FAFSA and are choosing not to fill it out.

Recently, several states – including Louisiana, Texas, and Illinois – have adopted requirements similar to what is being proposed in House Bill 87.  Louisiana saw a 25% increase in completions after implementing the change, but it is not all attributed to the requirement.  Louisiana took a multi-pronged approach including peer-support programs, one-on-one assistance for students and families, phone-call reminders, and completion incentives.

A multi-pronged approach, with resources to match, is likely the key to success and addressing some of the concerns we have heard expressed, including:

  • A non-academic requirement for graduation substantially out of a student’s control.
  • Adequate counseling supports to ensure students and families have the assistance necessary to complete and interpret the FAFSA – especially those from underrepresented populations.
  • Opt-out considerations for student populations that may be undocumented, going into the military, or straight into the workforce.
  • Adequate data tracking to see the potential success of the policy or unintended consequences, such as an increase in student debt from students who do not complete a credential.

Some experts – while supporting such policy shifts – say it’s too early to tell if the graduation requirements is the best path forward.  At least not from the limited experience in one state.  Even so, policy shifts in how students gain access to financial aid are likely necessary to increase FAFSA completion rates.  The Education Trust – West has developed a “financial aid tool box” to help policymakers and school leaders in understanding how best to support success and access to financial aid.

With this legislation moving through the process, it seems a good time to discuss the importance of the FAFSA, where Kentucky stands now with completion, and efforts to increase FAFSA completion rates.

Why is the FAFSA Important?

The FAFSA is the gateway to financial aid for most students pursuing postsecondary education. This includes federal aid such as student loans and Pell grants, need-based state aid administered by the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA), and a variety of assistance provided directly by postsecondary institutions.

With an increasing reliance on debt to cover rising college costs, it is more important than ever for students and families to complete the FAFSA to access financial aid that will assist in making postsecondary education more affordable.

FAFSA completion is a significant indicator of postsecondary enrollment.  Plus, those who do not miss out on the opportunity to access a more affordable postsecondary education.  According to one recent analysis, Kentucky students potentially miss out on over $30 million in federal Pell grants by not completing the FAFSA – grants worth up to $6,195 annually per student.

In Kentucky, the main need-based, state-financial aid programs require a FAFSA and are funded on a first-come, first-serve basis.

  • The College Access Program (CAP) provides up to $2,000 annually for undergraduate students to attend eligible public and private colleges and universities, proprietary schools and technical colleges.
  • The Kentucky Tuition Grant (KTG)provides up to $3,000 annually for aid to help Kentucky residents attend in-state eligible private colleges.
  • The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program (WRKS) provides “last dollar” financial assistance after other federal and state aid is applied up to the equivalent of in-state tuition and fees at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. This program provides aid for postsecondary students seeking an industry recognized certificate, diploma, or Associate of Applied Science degree in a high-demand workforce sector.

How Many Kentucky Students Complete the FAFSA?

According to the most recent Kentucky High School Feedback Reports produced by KY STATS, the statewide FAFSA completion rate for public high school graduates is 73%.

Moreover, Kentucky has consistently been above average nationally for FAFSA completion. According to data from the National College Access Network, Kentucky ranked 13th nationally for completions in the 2019-2020 cycle – and currently ranks 7th nationally for completions in the 2020-2021 cycle.

The U.S. Department of Education has a data tool that allows students, families and school administrators to track in real time the FAFSA completions in their high schools and school districts.  Below is the completion rate map for Kentucky for the 2019-20 FAFSA cycle.  This tool can help inform school and community leaders about how their outreach efforts are succeeding.

Why Don’t Students Fill Out FAFSA?

According to research from the National Center for Education Statistics, there are a number of reasons why students and their families may not complete the FAFSA.  As seen in the table below, these reasons ranged from lack of information to concerns about affordability.

This same research shows variations in reasons for not completing by level of parental education, race, and socioeconomic status.  Some highlights from overall findings also include:

  • Larger percentages of White and Hispanic students did not complete (25%) compared to Black students (19%)
  • A larger percentage of students in the lowest socioeconomic quintile (29 percent) did not complete the FAFSA compared to students in the middle three-fifths and in the highest fifth of SES (23 and 22 percent, respectively)

What are Current Efforts to Encourage FAFSA Completion in Kentucky?

There are a number of resources available to help guide students and their families through the FAFSA process from Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA) and the U.S. Department of Education.

KHEAA maintains a comprehensive outreach program to support students in understanding how to go and pay for college.  This includes 13 statewide outreach counselors and an additional 30 college coachers serving in high-need high schools.

Additionally, many school districts employ college & career readiness coaches as part of their counseling programs.  Districts also often host FAFSA completion nights to encourage and support students and families in completing.

For a student’s perspective on the FAFSA, check out the KnowHow2GoKY public service announcements and videos produced by the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team in partnership with GEAR-UP and the Kentucky College and Career Connection Coalition.

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