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This year, an estimated 1.2 million students missed out on billions in unclaimed aid for college, leaving over $2.6 billion in Pell Grant funds on the table — according to data collected by Frank. 

Considering the rising student debt, which topped over $1.53 trillion this year and has left over 44.7 million Americans dealing with student loan payments, any money left on the table is shocking. 

To gain access to a Pell Grant, prospective and current college students have to file the FAFSA® each school year. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is a form students submit to be eligible for various kinds of financial aid like grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and federal loans. One of the most common awards for eligible students is the federal Pell Grant.

The government set aside over 134.2 billion to help an estimated 12.2 million students on their way to college degrees. Seeing so much aid left on the table begs the question — what can we do better to educate college students about the importance of filing FAFSA®?

The Pell Grant is a financial aid award for low-income students based on their family’s financial need. In 2018, the maximum a student could get from the Pell Grant per year was $6,095. The government set aside over 134.2 billion to help an estimated 12.2 million students on their way to college degrees. 

Seeing so much aid left on the table begs the question — what can we do better to educate college students about the importance of filing FAFSA®? Moreover, what demographic of students are suffering most because of this missed opportunity? 

We gathered data from various sources to get an idea of who is and isn’t filing FAFSA® and understand the socio-economic roadblocks that might be preventing so many students from doing so.

Here are some of the critical pieces of information we pulled:

High School Seniors Are Missing Out

Over 1.2 million high school seniors didn’t file their FAFSA® in 2018. Let’s take a closer look at what those students missed out on:

  • Over 645k of those students were Pell Grant-eligible but didn’t get anything because they didn’t file the FAFSA®
  • Pell-eligible students receive an average of $4,078 a year towards college — which means students that didn’t submit missed out on that money
  • Altogether, students who didn’t file are missing out on $2.6 billion in Pell Grant funds

States Getting Hit The Hardest

Some of the states with low completion rates are home to the most Pell-eligible students in the country, including:

  • New Mexico where 26.53% of students that didn’t complete were Pell-eligible
  • Texas where 25.97% of students that didn’t complete were Pell-eligible
  • Utah where 26.53% of students that didn’t complete were Pell-eligible
  • Arizona where 26.86% of students that didn’t complete were Pell-eligible
Pell-Eligible Students By State: 


What do these locations have in common? In Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, it may have to do with the socio-economic background of the students themselves. For instance, if there are students that come from immigrant families, there can be much fear around filing for FAFSA®.

If the student is a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, the FAFSA® is available to them no matter what their parent’s status is.

If the student is a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, the FAFSA® is available to them no matter what their parent’s status is. If a student is concerned about providing information about their parent’s status, it would be beneficial to seek help from a school counselor or call the financial aid office of the college you are considering for guidance — rather than leaving money for your education on the table. 

Additionally, areas with low-income families that lack resources, such as internet access or high school guidance counselors, can prevent students from knowing about, let alone completing, the FAFSA®. Frank’s application, which is designed to be easier to understand, was created with the knowledge that many students are confused and uncertain about how to fill out the form. With little support, this is a massive roadblock for families that don’t have the right resources to apply for financial aid.

States With Large Population of Pell-eligible Students Show Low Completion

Considering the size of their student population, Texas, California, and Florida have dramatically low FAFSA® completion. 

These three states house large populations of college students, so the fact that so many are missing out on aid opportunities is surprising.

  • Given that each of these states makes up 13% or more of incomplete applications in the country, they house the largest population of students missing out on financial aid
  • California is a state that provides some of the most affordable college education options in the country, which makes their inclusion even more surprising
  • Texas, which also houses the state aid application TAFSA, has consistently suffered from low completion rates with little improvement.
FAFSA® Completion Data By State:


Women Complete FAFSA® More Than Men

One surprising piece of information Frank discovered while looking at the completion data is that more women completed the FAFSA® in 2018 than men 

  • Women were responsible for 61.42% of completed applications in 2018
  • Just over 11 million women completed FAFSA® compared to about 7 million men
  • That means women received over $17 million in Pell Grants

Other FAFSA® Completion Insights

First-Generation Students Are Ahead of the Pack

The data also shows that first-generation college students are completing the FAFSA® much more than students who’ve had one or more parents attend college.

  • Just over 9 Million first-generation college students completed FAFSA® 
  • About 5 Million students that completed have had one parent attend 
  • 4.7 Million students that completed have had both parents attend college

First-generation college students have typically been underserved when it comes to resources for going to college. To see this group taking advantage of the free aid that might be available to them is an excellent sign that resources are becoming more accessible to this group, and that they see the value in filing the FAFSA®.

Bachelor’s degree students win FAFSA® completion by a landslide 

  • Of the just under 19 Million students that completed FAFSA®, students seeking Bachelor’s degrees make up about 9 Million 
  • After that, the fall-off is significant, with just under 5 million Associate-seeking students filing
  • Students seeking Professional or Graduate degrees come in at 2.2 million
  • Most other certificate and a degree-seeking student fall far below 1 million

It’s clear from the data that non-traditional students, those who might be perusing associates general education or technical programs, don’t lean on FAFSA® as much as they should. It may be that students are not aware that federal aid extends to programs outside of your typical college education. Alternatively, maybe it comes back to a lack of resources for those enrolled in these types of programs.

However, another interesting take from this data is that only 5 Million graduate or professional students filed the FAFSA®. There are still grants, federal loans, and even work-study opportunities for these students. Given that they’re more likely to have been through this process with their initial college education, it’s unexpected that more of them wouldn’t try to take advantage of financial aid to help lessen their need for student loans. 

FAFSA® was created to help low-income college students achieve their dream of higher education. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case for every student…

FAFSA® was created to help low-income college students achieve their dream of higher education. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case for every student, even when they are eligible for the various grants and programs the FAFSA® provides. 

For students with a lack of resources and little awareness about the FAFSA® in certain communities throughout the country, the unfortunate reality is that they won’t have access to these much-needed funds. 

 

Data resources, definitions and notes available here and here as well as the Florida College Access Network. More notes below: 

Cell Values: Unless indicated otherwise, cell values are counts of applicants and include transactions that have been submitted but require additional information or clarification before they are considered complete. Application completion times are reported as Minutes:Seconds.
Dates: Based on the process date for the initial application for each applicant. Figures reported under “Initial Application” are based on that first transaction. Applicants may provide corrections, and figures reported under “Final Transaction” are based on the last transaction on file for that cycle and applicant. Since application processing may occur on a date later than the date an application was submitted, applications can still be processed after the close of 21-month application cycle. The volumes are generally negligible and are, therefore, added to the last reported quarter of the cycle.
Gender: As reported by the student. For general reference see Q21 on the 2017/18 PDF version of the FAFSA®.
Age: As reported by the student. For general reference see Q9 on the 2017/18 PDF version of the FAFSA®. Age calculated as of 12/31 of the first year of the application cycle.
Grade Level: As reported by the student. For general reference see Q29 on the 2017/18 PDF version of the FAFSA®.
Degree Pursuing: As reported by the student. For general reference see Q30 on the 2017/18 PDF version of the FAFSA®.
Parent Education Level: As reported by the student. For general reference see Q24 and Q25 on the 2017/18 PDF version of the FAFSA®. Parent Education Level based on whether none, one, or both parents report “College or beyond”. Other, unknown, or missing information does not exclude applicants from these totals.
Pell Eligibility Status: Pell Eligibility Status factors in application completion, general eligibility requirements, and Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
Dependency Status: Dependency status determined based on student circumstances. Generally speaking, Q46 through Q58 on the 2017/18 PDF version of the FAFSA® can be used as a general reference to determine who is considered an independent applicant.
We assume every high school senior is intent on pursuing some form of higher education, and therefore miss out on aid if they don’t apply to FAFSA®.
Pell eligibility ratios are the same for applicants as well as non-applicants.
Pell eligibility is the same for both female and male applicants.

We are not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education. Federal Student Aid (FSA), an office of the U.S. Department of Education, makes the Free
Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form and assistance available to the public for free at fafsa.gov.