Why students don’t fill out FAFSA—and what colleges are doing about it

For years, higher ed has worked to improve students' access to and understanding of federal financial aid.

However, more than $2.3 billion in financial aid goes unclaimed each year, according to the National College Access Network.

Writing for Community College Daily, Ellie Ashford rounds up four common FAFSA obstacles students face and the innovative strategies schools use to nudge students towards FAFSA completion.

Common FAFSA obstacles

1: Awareness. Many students remain unaware that financial aid is available or are unsure what the FAFSA does, says Megan Coval, the vice president of policy at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Students are also intimidated by the FAFSA's perceived complexity, she adds.

2: Nontraditional family structure. Students who have a nontraditional family structure face unique challenges to qualifying for financial aid, says Kelly Morrissey, a financial aid director at Mount Wassachusett Community College (MWCC).

If students want to apply for aid as an independent, they must be at least 24 years old, be married, or have children, Morrissey explains. But many students' situations don't neatly fit into these boxes. For example, students whose parents are not supporting them financially, or those who face housing insecurity find it difficult to qualify as independent, Morrissey says.

Why federal financial aid isn't enough for some students

3: Myths. Many students may skip the FAFSA altogether because of myths surrounding financial aid, says JoEllen Soucier, the executive director of financial aid at Houston Community College (HCC).

Students often grapple with assumptions around who qualifies for financial aid, Ashford writes. For example, students may believe they are ineligible because they're only attending part-time or because their parents' income will be too high, Soucier says.

4: Timing. Most community college students enroll a few weeks before the semester starts, says Daniel Barkowitz, a vice president for financial aid at Valencia College. By the time these students enroll in school, they have already missed the early FAFSA deadlines, he explains.

As many grants are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, students who don't submit their FAFSA on time may have a lower chance of getting the full amount of aid, he adds.

What schools are doing about it

1: On-campus support. Valencia hosts a "FAFSA Frenzy" event that brings high school students to campus to complete their financial aid applications, Barkowitz says. Even if those students don't end up enrolling at Valencia, they should still complete their FAFSA, he notes. Similarly, MWCC offers daily FAFSA support for students, Ashford writes.

Related: How the prior-prior year FAFSA might be changing student behavior

2: FAFSA Ambassadors. Valencia trains students to serve as financial aid learning ambassadors, Ashford writes. The students guide their peers through the FAFSA and offer general financial literacy tips, she writes.

At HCC, a financial aid coaching team presents FAFSA workshops at local high schools and hosts dedicated FAFSA filing events. HCC's FAFSA efforts have raised the number of students receiving financial aid about by four percentage points in the last four years, Soucier says.

3: Creative outreach. To raise awareness for the FAFSA, MWCC communicates through libraries, newspapers, and social media, Morrissey says. MWCC also participates in FAFSA DAY Massachusetts, which is sponsored by the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administration.

The publicity of the state-sponsored initiative and MWCC'S other outreach efforts have increased the college's FAFSA filings by about 5%, Morrissey adds (Ashford, Community College Daily, 11/15).

Also see: 3 grant myths that stifle student success efforts


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