Expert Commentary

The FAFSA and gaps in college financial aid

More than 19 percent of college students are eligible for financial aid but don't complete a FAFSA form, according to published research from an economics professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.


The issue: College students who want financial aid from the federal government must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, most commonly known as the FAFSA. The information provided on that form determines whether a student qualifies for Pell Grants, federally-subsidized education loans and work-study programs. Many colleges and universities also require students to submit a FAFSA to qualify for other aid, including grants and scholarships the school offers.

Even though there’s potentially a lot of money at stake, thousands of students skip the 105-question form, which is longer and, in some ways, more complicated than a federal tax return (The 2016 Form 1040 is two pages and 79 questions). For years, education leaders, student advocates and others have spoken out about the problem. Meanwhile, schools as well as non-profit groups such as FAFSA Day Massachusetts and the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority hold regular events to offer families one-on-one assistance.

An academic study worth reading: “To Apply or Not to Apply: FAFSA Completion and Financial Aid Gaps,” published in Research in Higher Education, 2017.

About the study: Michael S. Kofoed, an assistant economics professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, wanted to understand why more students do not submit the FAFSA. He also estimated the amount of money students are giving up by not completing the form.

Kofoed examined data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which looks at how college students pay for college and includes detailed information about parent income, student grades and the institutions students attend. He used data from the 1999-2000, 2003-2004 and 2007-2008 waves of the survey.

Key findings:

  • More than 19 percent of students were eligible for aid but did not complete the FAFSA.
  • College students who do not submit a FAFSA are more likely to be white men who do not rely on their parents for support and come from families earning less than $50,000 a year. Students who do not file FAFSAs also tend to have higher grade-point averages and SAT scores but attend less expensive colleges.
  • Many students do not fill out FAFSAs because they mistakenly believe they do not qualify for federal aid.
  • The likelihood that a student will complete a FAFSA drops as income rises. “An increase in a student’s own or family income by 1 percent decreases the probability of FAFSA completion by 8.6 percent.”
  • Students who do not fill out the FAFSA forgo an average of $9,741.05 in financial aid, which includes $1,281 in Pell Grants, $2,439.50 in federally-subsidized student loans and $1,016.04 in grant money from their colleges and universities.
  • As a whole, students who do not turn in the form forgo an estimated $24 billion a year in total aid.

Other resources:

  • Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, provides a variety of information about the types of financial aid available to college students and who qualifies for federal student aid. You can use their online database to look at FAFSA completion rates by high school and public school district.
  • A 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that a growing percentage of college students receive Pell Grants, which are awarded to lower-income undergraduates.

Related research:

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