As communities seek to raise their rates of educational attainment, boosting FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—completion is a proven strategy for increasing college-going among recent high school graduates.
The National College Access Network (NCAN) created the FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, which displays both completion and the percent change over years. Tennessee and Louisiana are virtually tied as the top states in the country in the number of high school seniors completing the FAFSA. And the two states took different paths to get there. In 2018, Louisiana linked FAFSA completion to high school graduation, and it is now a requirement for a high school diploma. Louisiana’s completion rate is 77% - 27% higher than the previous year.
Tennessee does not require students to complete the FAFSA in order to graduate. In fact, Tennessee has consistently had some of the highest FAFSA completion rates in the country for over a decade. This has been highly impacted by the work of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN). In Tennessee, our successes can be traced back to Governor Bredesen signing the state’s Hope Scholarship into law in 2003. Additionally, Tennessee’s senior U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander, has been a champion of FAFSA completion and simplification from the moment he entered Congress in 2002. I doubt there is anyone in Tennessee that hasn’t seen him take a hard copy of the FAFSA, hold it up high, and then drop it to the floor, unraveling its ridiculous length.
Tennessee’s rise to the top of the FAFSA completion charts was grassroots in nature, and stems from providing students and families with exposure to educational opportunity—the linchpin being Governor Haslam’s Tennessee Promise scholarship which guarantees free community college tuition for most of Tennessee’s students. With the Tennessee Promise, a state that was already deeply invested in building a college-going culture around FAFSA completion now had a rallying point.
All states have the ability to replicate the accomplishments of Louisiana and Tennessee. And these five factors are essential to our success in Tennessee:
- Early FAFSA Filing Deadlines: The Tennessee Promise has a number of application steps, including completion of the FAFSA in early February. The early filing deadline motivates students to prioritize completing the form. And, due to recent federal changes making it possible for families to use prior year information, the FAFSA is now available in October. This early access and Tennessee Promise’s February submission requirement launch Tennessee to the top of completion list early in the financial aid cycle.
- Outreach Specialists: Tennessee’s student aid agency, the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, employs area outreach specialists who work in every county across the state providing students and families with financial aid workshops, information on grants, scholarships, loans, and FAFSA technical assistance. Additionally, they provide technical support through a call center to help students and families who have questions while filling out the form.
- Professional Training: Completing a FAFSA and interpreting aid awards is highly technical. But it’s more than that. In order to help students and families fill out the forms, you often have to ask them personal details they may not want to share. For example, if a student has been “couch surfing,” and is homeless, anyone helping that student complete the FAFSA would need to create an environment and rapport where the student is willing to share that sensitive information. Here at the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN), we provide training to educators and college access experts on all aspects of college affordability including helping students whose family history may not be accurately reflected in the FAFSA questions.
- Statewide Events: The Tennessee Higher Education Commission helps build excitement around the college-going process through its Path to College Events, which includes FAFSA Frenzy Day. During Tennessee FAFSA Frenzy Day, volunteers from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, nonprofits, and college financial aid counselors visit public high schools to help students and families complete the FAFSA.
- Communication and Data: Consistent communication with high school educators and counselors is essential for FAFSA completion. During the FAFSA season, Tennessee high schools are updated on their current rate of FAFSA completion, comparing their rates not only to previous years but to other high schools. Counselors can view which students have not yet completed the form on a weekly basis. Access to this type of real-time, data-driven feedback helps drive a focus on FAFSA completion that spans months, rather than a single event offered at each high school.
Increasing educational attainment is a nationwide issue. By incentivizing FAFSA completion through state policy and providing key supports for implementation, we can better help students continue their education and become citizens who can fully contribute to our society.