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FAFSA Completion Rates Vary by State
29 Jul 2013
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by Chad Aldeman

While completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) vary tremendously by school, they vary by state as well. Using newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education, we created the map below to show state-level FAFSA completion rates. Nationwide, 55 percent of high school graduates completed their FAFSA in 2012.* Twenty-four states had statewide completion rates under 50 percent and four states—Arizona, Utah, Alaska, and Vermont—had statewide completion rates under 40 percent. Twenty-five states fell somewhere in the middle and had between 50 and 59 percent of their graduates complete the form. And on the other end of spectrum, Massachusetts and Rhode Island had the highest completion rates. In those states, more than six out of 10 high school graduates completed a FAFSA. Importantly, the data also allow us to look at the number and percentage of students who start filling out the form but, for one reason or another, fail to complete it. In 2012, almost 4 percent of high school graduates, or 135,772 students, started their FAFSA but did not complete it. In most states, this constitutes between 2 and 5 percent of students. However, two states, Nevada and California, post higher rates of discouraged students. In California, more than 6 percent of graduates attempted to complete the FAFSA, but failed to finish and submit the form. This means that 29,075 Californian high school seniors were ambitious enough to begin completing the form but had some obstacle prevent them from doing so. States should do a better job of targeting these students. Armed with new data allowing them to identify, in real time, precisely which students have started and completed their FAFSA, states could start to target their efforts to students in need of extra support. Even more appropriately, states that are developing new college- and career-ready measures of high school success could add FAFSA completion rates as one measure of college-readiness. *For details on the FAFSA completion numbers, see here. To calculate state-level FAFSA completion rates, we used the figures provided by the U.S. Department of Education as the numerator. The numbers exclude very small schools with fewer than 10 students. For the denominator, we used the National Education Association’s (NEA) Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2012 and Estimates of School Statistics 2013. Those figures are only for public high school graduates. To compensate for private school students, we used data from the National Center for Education Statistics to increase the NEA figures by the proportion of total private school enrollment statewide. This piece was co-authored by Mary Margaret Mills, a Bellwether intern and University of North Carolina student.

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It was with great interest that I read your recent post on the FAFSA filing rates by state. For the last several years, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC), with funds from the federal College Access Challenge Grant, has worked to increase the percentage of high school seniors who file a FAFSA. I was surprised by your estimates for our state, because our findings suggest that approximately 58% of current high school seniors have completed a FAFSA for the 2013-2014 cycle, to date. A review of the data sources used to determine your estimate revealed that the projected number of high school graduates used as the denominator was overstated by more than 2,000. We believe the number of public and private high schools seniors for the Class of 2013 to be closer to 6,800. Vermont has a long history of partnering with Federal, State and local government as well as K-12 and postsecondary institutions to significantly increase the number of students who aspire to, apply to and enter postsecondary education institutions and training programs after high school. Of course, student financial aid plays a key role in the process. We still have much work ahead of us to provide all Vermont students and their families with the tools they need, both information and financial, to pursue their education and training goals after high school. Our research shows that our efforts are beginning to pay off. Thank you. Wanda M. Arce Director of Research VSAC

Not every student aspires to go on to college...some start the FAFSA b/c of peer pressure, some understand that they will not qualify for government cheese anyway...some can't get their parents to cooperate...

This is a great post and an awesome resource. I'm in the middle of completing year two FAFSA submission/completion data with respect to free and reduced lunch rates in the state of Maryland for each public high school. The data have proven interesting, although expected. I'd love your feedback on this. I have the information as an open google doc: http://emchat.net/2013/04/30/independent-research-fafsa-free-lunch/ (it's in the middle of the post).

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