News: Data, Research & Evaluation

NCAN Report: Students in Impoverished School Districts Are Less Likely to Apply for Financial Aid

Monday, October 1, 2018  
Posted by: Jack Porter, Advocacy Associate
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The 2019-20 FAFSA cycle begins today, and NCAN is releasing a new report on the relationship between school district poverty and FAFSA completion rates. One might hope to see students in lower-income districts applying for aid at higher rates than their wealthier counterparts, but the findings show – for the third year in a row – that the opposite is true.

On average, for every 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of children living in poverty, a school district’s FAFSA completion rate for the 2018 high school senior class was 2.3 percentage points lower, according to the report. While this persistent negative relationship is discouraging, nine states did buck the trend and exhibited higher FAFSA completion rates in impoverished communities than in wealthier communities.

The graphic below depicts median district-level FAFSA completion rates by state.

Overall, the FAFSA completion rate in the U.S. increased 0.3 percentage points from June 2017 to June 2018, according to Federal Student Aid data.

Arguably the most noteworthy phenomenon from this cycle was Louisiana’s 25.9 percent year-over-year increase in FAFSA completion, a trend that can largely be attributed to the state’s new rule that high school seniors must complete the application in order to graduate. Despite the fact that poor communities did not outperform the state’s more affluent areas, school districts saw, on average, a 13 percentage point increase in FAFSA completion.

For national perspective, consider this: 38,814 more high school seniors completed the FAFSA this past year than in 2017, and 7,778 of those students came from Louisiana. Thus, 20 percent of the nation’s year-over-year FAFSA completion rate increase can be attributed to Louisiana and its unprecedented policy move.

Considering the implications of this development, NCAN Director of Policy and Advocacy Carrie Warick remarked, “While the overall national increase in FAFSA completions for high school students was small, the example of Louisiana demonstrates that thoughtful policy changes can have a large impact on students. Students who file a FAFSA are much more likely to enroll in postsecondary education than their non-filing peers. So increasing FAFSA completion rates overall, but particularly among lower-income school districts, is a key way to help more students access higher education.”

Officials from the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance will discuss these implications and share new data on the policy’s impact during a webinar hosted by NCAN tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. EDT. The report’s author, doctoral candidate and former NCAN Graduate Fellow Danielle Lowry, will provide a detailed overview of her findings and offer policy recommendations aimed at increasing FAFSA completion in low-income communities.

Note: The report uses data from the 2016 U.S. Census, Federal Student Aid’s FAFSA completion data, and the National Center of Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data.