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Why Is Filling Out the FAFSA So Important?

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Federal financial aid forms have gotten much easier to complete, but huge numbers of students still don't submit them, leaving "billions of dollars on the table," a choice that could wreck their chances of going to college.

Check out these recent numbers from the National College Access Network: Its researchers studied 68 cities, and found that on average, only 48 percent of high school students in the class of 2015 submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

We know that failure to submit the FAFSA is a huge stumbling block on the road to college; an influential 2008 report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research documented the problem. So it's no wonder that NCAN bemoaned the low completion rates it found. 

The widely varying completion rates show that some districts are doing a far better job than others in helping their students get across the FAFSA finish line.

FAFSA Completion Rates National College Access Network.JPG

"Students are leaving billions of dollars of federal, state, and institutional aid on the table each year because we don't ensure that they fill out the FAFSA in a timely way," the NCAN report says. "This situation leads to lower college enrollment, persistence, and completion, especially for low-income students."

The FAFSA has undergone important changes to make it easier to submit: It's been simplified and made available earlier. But the biggest problem, still, is simply lack of information, according to NCAN. 

"They don't believe that there's money," Elizabeth Morgan, the report's lead author, told public radio's Marketplace. "They don't understand that there's money to help them pay for college. That's the fundamental problem."

The 68-city study might actually have understated the national problem. NCAN said that it calculated FAFSA completion rates for the class of 2014, from the U.S. Department of Education's office of federal student aid, and found a national completion rate of 44 percent.

The districts that NCAN studied were competing for grants from the Kresge Foundation to improve their FAFSA completion rates. Twenty-two of the cities won grants, NCAN reports.

For more stories about changes in the FAFSA, see:

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