The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can open doors for students who might otherwise not be able to afford higher education, college and career advisers say. But many students never complete it.
According to research published online by the National College Attainment Network, an organization dedicated to closing equity gaps in postsecondary attainment, the 2022 high school class left $3.6 billion in Pell grants on the table by not completing the FAFSA.
Nationally, 44 percent of 2022 graduates did not complete a FAFSA. On average, eligible graduates receive $4,686 in Pell grants.
Here in Missouri, more than $70 million dollars went unclaimed because of FAFSA noncompletion. In 2021, that number was $71 million.
Missouri's average Pell grant for the class of 2022 was $4,559, and 51 percent of graduates did not complete the FAFSA. Within that number are 15,400 class of 2022 Pell grant-eligible students who did not complete the FAFSA.
What is the FAFSA?
The FAFSA is an application that students must fill out to get federal financial aid such as federal grants, work-study and loans. Some states, colleges and private providers also use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for aid.
When filling out the forms, families will need to provide identifying information such as a Social Security number, driver's license number, tax information for yourself or your parents if you're a dependent student, and income and account records.
In Missouri, the priority deadline is Feb. 1, 2023, but applications are accepted through April 1.
Federal Pell grants are for students with "exceptional financial need" who have not earned a degree. The money does not need to be repaid except in a few circumstances such as withdrawing from the program or changing enrollment status. Schools use the information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for Pell grants.
RootEd and rural schools
Locally, students are benefiting from the efforts of advisers working through the RootEd program, which provides funding to bring counselors into rural schools to help students prepare for college, the workforce or whatever path they've chosen to pursue after high school.
Nicole Snider, Missouri Lakeside regional director for RootEd, said she oversees 16 schools locally, including Blair Oaks, Cole R-1 High School and Cole R-5 High School. Across the state, there are 140 schools participating in the college and career advising program.
Advisers serve students on whatever path they've chosen after graduation, and the FAFSA is important for college-bound students, Snider said. Her region has 750 students and is currently sitting at 54 percent confirmed completion, and the statewide goal is 55 percent.
Renee Maples retired from the Blair Oaks School District as a teacher just last year, but Maples said she jumped at the chance to come back as a RootEd college and career adviser this year. Maples works two days a week meeting with students and helping them as they take steps toward their post-secondary plans.
"We do a really big push for our seniors specifically," Maples said. "The FAFSA opens on Oct. 1, and we do everything we can to get the word out to students and parents that beginning Oct. 1, get your FAFSA completed as soon as possible."
In the first meeting of the year with seniors, Maples said the high school counselor talked with students about the FAFSA, scholarships and looking at schools to apply to by Halloween. The FAFSA is also part of a newsletter that goes out to parents with important date reminders.
"Lincoln University actually does a FAFSA Frenzy night, and we advertise that and encourage our students to actually attend, because there are people there who are very in tune to how to complete the FAFSA and they are there to walk parents through it step-by-step," Maples said.
Some rural schools even have their own FAFSA Frenzies.
Carrie Welch, director of counseling at Jefferson City High School, spearheads events like FAFSA Frenzies.
Welch said the school hosts after-school nights for two weeks in October to get families started on the FAFSA. Counselors also meet with every senior and show them how to access the information they need.
In October, there are two FAFSA Frenzy events, and in September, the school invites senior students' families to go over financial aid and the FAFSA.
Welch said students may think a college is out of their price range, but they may not know until they fill out the FAFSA and see what kind of institutional dollars they can receive.
Welch said JCHS doesn't track FAFSA completion, but does track students' post-secondary plans. Around 86 percent of JCHS students attend a two- or four-year college.
Maples' Blair Oaks data shows that so far, 79 percent of students have completed the FAFSA.
"Blair Oaks is kind of an anomaly," she said. "I feel like we work really hard and our community works very hard, and parents do, to make sure that our kids are completing that FAFSA, applying for student aid and applying for scholarships."
Yet in Missouri, the number of students completing the FAFSA was only around half.
Overall, though, Maples said she doesn't find that number surprising. Having come from a small town herself and from a family where no one had yet attended college, she said she's familiar with the disadvantage that families may face when they don't know from experience how to complete all the steps leading up to going off to college.
"I just think that that number is indicative of parents just not knowing what to do, and that's where this RootEd alliance has become important in those rural schools because people like me are pushing in and really focusing on those students and those parents and saying, 'We're here to help you. Let's get started,'" she said.
The roadblocks that many families face include lack of experience or knowledge about the process and reluctance to share financial information over concerns about privacy.
"'Why do I have to give the federal government all my tax information? I really don't want to share that.' Or maybe they might be reluctant to reach out to a career adviser, a college and career adviser, because they don't want their information to be seen or shared, and so I think that is like a stigma for some parents and especially in more rural communities," she said.
Welch said people may also have questions if they haven't filed taxes or the students' parents are divorced.
Just because a student thinks they aren't going to go to college in October, doesn't mean they won't change their mind by March, both Welch and Maples said, so they encourage students to complete it anyway to give themselves options.
"Once you've completed it, it's finished, and now you can focus on other choices that you need to make," Maples said.
If students are going to apply to more than one school, they will be able to compare financial aid packages that are informed by the FAFSA.
Colleges can also be a resource for getting the FAFSA done.
"Any of your local colleges and universities, regardless if a kid's attending there, their financial aid office is more than happy to help walk a parent through that process," Welch said.
The $70 million left unclaimed because of FAFSA non-completion did not go unnoticed. One Missouri lawmaker took aim at the issue with a bill to encourage students to think about their future.
Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, sponsored SB 136, which would require school districts to create a process to help students complete the FAFSA. It would also require the state education department to create a process for students to make an academic plan.
She sponsored similar legislation last year that didn't make it out of the House, she said, due to misunderstandings about what it would do. Some were afraid students would be required to do the FAFSA or else not graduate, which she said was not the intention.
This year, she said, she sat down with people who had those concerns to tweak the bill.
The intent of the bill, she said, is to create a process that can make students aware of the opportunities they have through academic planning and the FAFSA.
"When I was a superintendent of schools, it was a standing joke: I'd go in the cafeteria, and I'd walk around, and I'd shake kids' hands and say, 'What are you going to do in May? What's your plan? What's your plan?'" Eslinger said. "And so this piece of legislation is near and dear to my heart, because I know that if kids have adults around them, talking to them about what they want to be and where they want to go, then they take the time to think about it."
She said her years in public schools, particularly rural schools, brought the issue to her attention.
She said students should get "the full menu" of options for their post-secondary plans.
"I think that we can unintentionally do harm to children when we don't give them a broad menu of opportunity," she said. "And if they don't know, then they're not able to maybe pursue something that is a life goal, something that's going to make them happy, something that's going to contribute to our state. ... I just think it's really important for kids to see all options and not just have a narrow view of what their world's going to be after graduation."
Her bill was met with support from various education organizations and particular enthusiasm by one member across the aisle during a hearing before the Senate education committee.
"This could be the most impactful bill that we could pass this year," said Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City.