While completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) vary tremendously by school, they vary by state as well. Using newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education, we created the map below to show state-level FAFSA completion rates.
Nationwide, 55 percent of high school graduates completed their FAFSA in 2012.* Twenty-four states had statewide completion rates under 50 percent and four states—Arizona, Utah, Alaska, and Vermont—had statewide completion rates under 40 percent. Twenty-five states fell somewhere in the middle and had between 50 and 59 percent of their graduates complete the form. And on the other end of spectrum, Massachusetts and Rhode Island had the highest completion rates. In those states, more than six out of 10 high school graduates completed a FAFSA.
Importantly, the data also allow us to look at the number and percentage of students who start filling out the form but, for one reason or another, fail to complete it. In 2012, almost 4 percent of high school graduates, or 135,772 students, started their FAFSA but did not complete it. In most states, this constitutes between 2 and 5 percent of students. However, two states, Nevada and California, post higher rates of discouraged students. In California, more than 6 percent of graduates attempted to complete the FAFSA, but failed to finish and submit the form. This means that 29,075 Californian high school seniors were ambitious enough to begin completing the form but had some obstacle prevent them from doing so.
States should do a better job of targeting these students. Armed with new data allowing them to identify, in real time, precisely which students have started and completed their FAFSA, states could start to target their efforts to students in need of extra support. Even more appropriately, states that are developing new college- and career-ready measures of high school success could add FAFSA completion rates as one measure of college-readiness.
*For details on the FAFSA completion numbers, see here. To calculate state-level FAFSA completion rates, we used the figures provided by the U.S. Department of Education as the numerator. The numbers exclude very small schools with fewer than 10 students. For the denominator, we used the National Education Association’s (NEA) Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2012 and Estimates of School Statistics 2013. Those figures are only for public high school graduates. To compensate for private school students, we used data from the National Center for Education Statistics to increase the NEA figures by the proportion of total private school enrollment statewide.
This piece was co-authored by Mary Margaret Mills, a Bellwether intern and University of North Carolina student.