The state with record FAFSA completion rates—and how it got there

Tennessee students have ranked number one in the nation for FAFSA completion, reports Adam Tamburin for The Tennessean.

FAFSA completion has been a challenge in many places around the United States. For example, about $2.9 billion of federal student aid went unclaimed during the 2013-2014 school year because students did not complete the FAFSA. The problem is especially acute in low-income school districts, where for every 10-point increase in child poverty, FAFSA completion rates decline by 3 percentage points.

There are a few reasons why students don't complete it. One of them is the jargon on the FAFSA, which can be hard to understand for the families of first-generation students who haven't seen it before and for students' families whose first language is not English. But completing the FAFSA can also be tedious, because students have to track down documents and gather personal information from their parents.

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Insufficient financial aid can force students to drop out, lowering graduation rates. And, in Tennessee, students must fill out a FAFSA to enroll in Tennessee Promise, one of the first free tuition programs in the United States. That's why the Tennessee Higher Education Commission launched an initiative to encourage students to complete FAFSA. Commission officials started collecting data on student success to determine how best they could help improve FAFSA completion, according to Mike Krause, executive director of the commission.

Krause's team tracked FAFSA completion at individual high schools around the state, writes Tamburin. At schools with low FAFSA completion rates, the commission hosted FAFSA workshops and one-on-one sessions with students. Krause and the commission continued to collect data during this initiative, watching for progress and warning signs, writes Tamburin.

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In Memphis alone, more than 100 community organizations and high school counselors helped more than 7,000 graduating seniors fill out the FAFSA in 2015.

And now the state seems to have mastered what it takes to get students to complete the FAFSA in big numbers. During the 2015-2016 school year, the city of Memphis achieved the highest FAFSA-completion rate in the country. And during the most recent 2016-2017 school year, 74% of high school seniors in the entire state completed the FAFSA, writes Tamburin.

This was higher than any other state.

Collecting data helped Tennessee so much with FAFSA completion that it wants to use the method to improve other student success measures as well, according to Gov. Bill Haslam (R). The state is particularly interested in using data to help minority students, who are more likely to drop out of college than other groups, Krause notes (Tamburin, The Tennessean, 7/24).

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