Flawed FAFSA rollout leads to 11.6% drop in students filling out the college financial aid form

Students walk along a sidewalk in the middle of campus with green trees all around.
Federal financial aid application completions are down after the botched rollout of the Better FAFSA form, sparking worry that fewer students will go to college this fall. (Jon Lovette / Getty Images)

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As this year’s tumultuous rollout of the so-called Better FAFSA came to a close, the number of students who completed the form dropped 11.6% compared to last year, according to data from the National College Attainment Network.

Nationally, 46% of graduating high school seniors this year completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by June 28, according to data released Saturday by the nonprofit. The form unlocks federal, state, and institutional aid to attend college, and the end of June typically serves as a milestone to gauge completion rates nationwide. The nonprofit NCAN advocates for equitable access to higher education and annually tracks FAFSA completion rates.

States with laws requiring high school students to fill out the FAFSA before graduation and states with free college programs that incentivize students to submit the form saw higher completion rates than states without such programs or requirements. But even in states where filling out the FAFSA is tied to graduation, the percentages were lower than in past years.

The low completion rates and steep year-over-year drop in students filling out the form underscore the incredible difficulties they and their families faced this year. The federal government released the revamped form three months behind schedule in December. While the form is purportedly easier to fill out, delays and technical glitches marred its release.

The numbers worry college officials and researchers, who fear that fewer students nationwide will enroll in college in the fall, especially since FAFSA completion correlates with enrollment. Officials are particularly concerned about students facing the most challenges in accessing higher education, such as those from low-income backgrounds and students who are the first to go to college in their family.

NCAN data shows lower completion rates among all student groups, but especially among students from low income backgrounds and students of color. Completion rates were down 13.4% among students from schools that the nonprofit characterizes as low income and 13.3% among students at schools that NCAN characterizes as high minority.

Some states did a better job than others in getting students to complete the form and increase students’ prospects of showing up in the fall.

Although down year-over-year, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Illinois topped the list of states with more than 55% of all graduating seniors completing the FAFSA. Tennessee has a statewide free college program that incentivizes students filling out the FAFSA.

Illinois has had a state law since 2020 that requires high school seniors to fill out the FAFSA in order to graduate, though lawmakers considered pausing it this year due to the trouble with the form. The bill didn’t pass, but state officials allowed schools to file a waiver amid issues.

Louisiana was the first state to pass such a law in 2018, but officials voted to repeal the requirement earlier this year. Students will no longer be required to fill out the form next year.

States such as New Jersey and New York were able to get about half of all students to complete the form. Both have new laws that will require students to fill out the form next year before they graduate high school. About half of all California high school seniors also filled out the FAFSA. That state has required students to complete college financial aid forms since 2022.

Ranking in the middle, Indiana and Pennsylvania were able to get about 45% of students completing the form by just before the deadline, while Michigan reached about 43% completion.

Alaska, Utah, and Arizona had the three lowest FAFSA completion rates at 24%, 30%, and 33%, respectively.

Colorado again ranked near the bottom, a persistent issue for the state. Only 37% of students completed the form this year, a drop of 11.3%.

Angie Paccione, Colorado’s higher education executive director, said the Colorado Department of Higher Education is dedicated to increasing FAFSA completion rates. Her department, colleges, and high school counselors worked overtime to help students, she said.

The low numbers in Colorado have been a concern for years. Two years ago, a group of experts released recommendations that call for more resources to help students fill out the form and a policy that would require all students to fill out the FAFSA before graduation. Lawmakers did enact legislation that created grants to boost completion, especially because the state leaves about $30 million in estimated federal aid for college aid unclaimed each year.

Paccione said the state has also tried to communicate that college is a valuable investment in an effort to boost FAFSA completion and college enrollment. About 75% of jobs require a postsecondary credential, and 90% of the jobs that can support a family of three require an education beyond high school.

This year’s difficult rollout of the Better FAFSA stretched resources and hindered efforts to spread the message about the value of college, in Colorado and elsewhere, Paccione said.

A recent study from the Century Foundation, a progressive think-tank, found that drops in FAFSA completion were especially pronounced in lower-income regions and states, such as in Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

Students also filed the FAFSA on average 75 days later than last year, the Century Foundation study found. The foundation’s study listed concerns that many students were getting college financial aid information on a later timeline with less time to make a decision.

Many colleges nationwide stretched enrollment deadlines to June 1, but some students were still getting financial aid information within days, or just after, that deadline. Those problems have created more fears of summer melt, or students accepted to college and who plan to enroll but never show up in the fall.

Paccione said she shared concerns about which Colorado students were getting what they needed to access federal financial aid and then get to college in the fall.

“There’s no shortage of attention to this. There is a shortage of resources,” Paccione said. “There’s just so many factors that are contributing to the lower completion rate.”

This story has been updated to correct that New Jersey’s and New York’s FAFSA requirements go into effect in the 2024-25 school year.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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