In the places where students need FAFSA most, they're less likely to fill it out

Students in lower-income school districts have lower FAFSA completion rates, according to a recent study by the National College Access Network (NCAN).

Researchers used school district-level poverty data from the U.S. Census and district-level FAFSA completion data from the Department of Education. They combined these, along with regression models by state, to examine how FAFSA completion rates correlate to child poverty by district. 

Early FAFSA completion means early effort in admissions

The researchers found that impoverished areas tend to have lower rates of FAFSA completion. For every 10-point increase in child poverty, FAFSA completion rates declined by 3 percentage points.

Only four states have made gains in closing the completion gap: California, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Warick says NCAN plans to conduct follow up research to find out what these states are doing to improve completion rates in low-income areas.

The study comes at a time when completing the FAFSA is already harder for students. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently suspended its Data Retrieval tool, requiring students to go through additional steps to enter family tax data.

To boost completion rates among low-income students, experts recommend simplifying the jargon in communications about financial aid. According to the National Center for Education Statistics' Education Longitudinal Survey, over 16% of low-income first-time, full-time freshmen enrollments in 2012 failed to enroll due to confusion or anxiety over financial aid.

Research also shows that you can help guide students through the process by breaking the task down into smaller, more manageable to-do items for students (Warick, NCAN blog, 4/19).

Lessons from tax season for FAFA completion

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