Senior Policy Associate, The Century Foundation
The United States currently faces a reckoning on how much students and families must pay for college. College is worth it, but it has always been expensive, especially now. Without better financial support for students, these costs continue to worsen inequities of race and class and, for many, make high debt the price of pursuing one’s dreams.
But within this reckoning is another one: too much money that already exists to help students afford college fails to reach those in need. While unadjusted costs of college are daunting, students leave billions in aid unclaimed every year, in part due to the complexity of applying for aid. In 2016, 1.6 million college students could have received the $5,775 maximum Pell Grant but didn’t apply, including 200,000 Black students and 350,000 Latinx students.
Getting aid has a profound effect on who has access to college. If you think a college’s price tag is out of your budget and don’t realize you qualify for aid, you might not enroll. And if you do, not getting the help you need makes it tougher to cover surprise costs: the infamous $300 textbook, or sudden medical expenses.
A blind spot
State and federal governments generally don’t know how much help students need unless they’re told, which is a significant blind spot in being able to address college affordability issues. Colleges can help fill these gaps — they have received $32 billion from Congress for emergency student grants during the pandemic — but to effectively distribute the aid, they need data on whose needs are greatest.
The first step to removing the blinders facing students, government, and institutions is helping students complete the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Completing this online form can unlock the Pell grant, most state financial aid, discounts from colleges, and, if needed, student loans. These are the resources that can make the math of affording college work.
From necessary to mandatory
In this way, the FAFSA has always been necessary. Now, education leaders are considering whether it should be mandatory.
Since 2016, Louisiana, Illinois, and Texas have all made FAFSA submission a high school graduation requirement, with another fourteen states considering it. One in three 12th graders lives in a state where legislation has been introduced.
Under these policies, students must either submit the FAFSA by graduation or opt out. They can also be waived by their school for extenuating circumstances, such as inability to reach a parent.
This sounds punitive, but it’s not. Opting out of the requirement is like completing a permission slip for a field trip. Yet schools see an effect: Louisiana’s FAFSA completions increased 25 percent in one year, with the strongest gains occurring at high schools with the most low-income students. In 2019-20, college students in Louisiana received $32 million more in Pell Grants than when the policy was enacted.
This policy didn’t magically motivate families to punch in information and upload W-2s. Rather, a broad community of Louisiana school administrators, teachers, and community members rolled up their sleeves to help students and families complete the form, and agency officials hosted hundreds of workshops statewide.
This determination to push through the complicated application process — plus hands-on assistance through that process — are more than just a quick-fix.
Lila Schoen knows the value of support and a get-it-done attitude. A member of the College Advising Corps, Schoen recently worked with a student who was on the fence about college and didn’t plan to complete the FAFSA.
“I made him fill out his FAFSA anyways. He learned he could get $6,495 to go to school,” Schoen says. “His mom was so excited that she called everyone in her family.”
Anyone considering college should try to complete the FAFSA. If they hit a roadblock, they should find someone like Schoen at their school, a local college access organization, or the college where they hope to enroll. And state policymakers should ensure every school has the necessary resources to guide their students through the process.
Students owe it to themselves to see what college opportunities they can afford. And we owe it to them to make sure paperwork won’t stand in their way.
As for Schoen’s student? “Needless to say,” she reports, “he will be enrolling in the fall.”