What colleges in other states can learn from Tennessee about FAFSA

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.

The FAFSA form is notoriously complex, but Tennessee has taken steps to push students across that financial aid finish line, Emily Siner reports for Nashville Public Radio.

About 75% of high school seniors have filled out the FAFSA in Tennessee, about 20 percentage points higher than any other state, she writes.

"It doesn't necessarily mean that all of those students will attend college, but it is a critical step in getting there," says Angela Boatman, a higher education policy professor at Vanderbilt University. When students don't fill out the form, it's less likely they will attend college, says Boatman. 

But the FAFSA can be so complicated that even experts, like Boatman, have difficulty filling it out, Siner writes.

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

Tennessee has been successful in boosting their FAFSA completion rate because they've taken a "multi-pronged approach," Boatman says.

In 2015, for example, the state began requiring students to file their FAFSA to be eligible for free tuition for community or technical colleges, Siner writes.

To help students complete the FAFSA, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission started tracking FAFSA filing rates at high schools around the state, according to Mike Krause, executive director of the commission. At schools with low FAFSA completion rates, the commission hosted FAFSA workshops and one-on-one sessions with students.

Similarly, the commission organizes "FAFSA Frenzy" days where advisors visit high schools to help students complete the form, says Emily House, the commission's lead researcher. The commission also sends weekly emails to principals showing how their school's FAFSA completion rate compares to others, which can add an element of competition, says House.

Refiling the FAFSA is just as crucial for student success.

Research indicates that 15% to 20% of Pell Grant recipients in good academic standing do not successfully refile their FAFSA. Pell-eligible sophomores who fail to refile FAFSA are 28% more likely to withdraw, Annie Yi writes for EAB's Student Success Collaborative (Siner, Nashville Public Radio, 2/8).

Also see: What can TurboTax teach us about improving FAFSA completion?


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