Colorado: Increasing FAFSA completion to drive attainment
Colorado has an opportunity to put more than 10,000 additional students on track for postsecondary opportunities by focusing on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion. After Louisiana passed legislation requiring FAFSA completion as a graduation requirement, the state saw completion rates rise to over 78% from 52% in less than a decade.
Colorado can increase the likelihood of more than 14,000 students completing the FAFSA and attending college if recently passed similar legislation garners comparable results, based on the 2020-2021 graduating class of nearly 56,000.
Students who complete the FAFSA attend college at higher rates than those who don’t, research from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) shows. They are also more likely to persist in their coursework as demonstrated by research from the Education Strategy Group (ESG). While Colorado is making progress on several college readiness measures, the state ranks below the national average for the number of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in school and has one of the lowest FAFSA application completion rates. Colorado estimates their students leave $30 million in federal financial aid unclaimed every year. The state faces a significant gap in postsecondary educational attainment between White and Hispanic students. Policies designed to increase FAFSA completion among high school students can help more students access postsecondary opportunities and reduce racial and socioeconomic college completion gaps for young Coloradans.
Recognizing this opportunity for impact, the Colorado legislature set in motion three related policies. First, local education agencies are eligible for a grant if they require FAFSA completion for high school seniors. Second, the state established a FAFSA working group of experts from across the state to develop strategies to increase FAFSA completion. Finally, the state established a goal – with the strategy group – for 80% of all graduating high school seniors to complete the FAFSA application by 2026. This combination of funding and support creates the conditions for Colorado to move from one of the lowest completion rates in the county to one of the highest.
The need for increasing FAFSA completion in Colorado is supported by state-level data available through the George W. Bush Institute’s State Education and Workforce Pipeline Tool and the National College Attainment Network (NCAN):
- Colorado is below the national average in the number of 18- to -24-year-olds in school after high school graduation.
- There is a large gap in postsecondary educational attainment rates between White, Hispanic, and Black students. In 2019, 62% of White 25- to 34-year-olds had an associate degree or higher, while only 28% of Hispanic and 36% of Black young adults held associate degrees or higher.
- The number of students who completed the FAFSA during the 2020-2021 school year dropped 8%, the second consecutive yearly decline. The national average is a 6.5% decrease.
- Colorado ranks 42nd nationally in the number of high school students who complete the FAFSA according to NCAN on April 8, 2022.
How it happens
To drive an increase in FAFSA completion rates, Colorado leaders should adopt a clear policy agenda. This statewide vision should ensure strategic alignment to the efforts already underway in increasing affordability and equity in higher education in the state, as well as leveraging supports available to increase chances for success. Stakeholder engagement will be a critical component of success, ensuring that all relevant parties are included in the efforts and strategies within the policy agenda. Leadership in the state will play a critical role in ensuring that initiatives are working toward the shared policy agenda. A sustained commitment to achieve the ultimate goal of increasing postsecondary attainment will be needed to increase FAFSA completion among other actions.
The strategy group recently published a report setting a goal that 80% of all graduating seniors will complete the FAFSA. The report lays out policies the state can take to achieve this, such as:
- Maintain and permanently fund supports and tools that have proven to increase FAFSA rates.
- Provide training to counselors and college advisors, workshops for students, and significant outreach to parents/guardians to support the FAFSA process.
- Launch a communications campaign in multiple languages to increase awareness of the benefits of FAFSA completion.
- Develop certificates for teachers, counselors, and community partners to provide accurate support to students and families.
- Work with financial aid offices to streamline verification processes across institutions to minimize barriers for students.
- Provide incentives for districts to meet the 80% completion goal – such as competitions with neighboring states, grants and scholarship awards, or other marketing campaigns.
In addition to the recommendations in the report, Colorado should consider policy that create
- Alternatives for families that are unable to access financial information, are undocumented, or choose to opt out.
- Additional dual enrollment programs to “provide an introduction to postsecondary education” to students from families with lower incomes, as indicated in the Colorado Equity Champions Coalition report.
- Regular reports to share FAFSA completion data with parents, communities, and schools.
The state can build on the work of the Colorado Equity Champions Coalition, which focuses on policies that increase affordability and equity in postsecondary education, and the working group, which focuses on increasing FAFSA application rates. Both reports name FAFSA completion as a key strategy to create a more equitable education system.
Colorado has a strong longitudinal data system, scoring the highest in our Pipeline Tool’s “Accessibility and Data-Driven Policy” category, showing that the state has a history of making data-informed policy decisions. Given that, state leaders will have the data to examine a direct link between FAFSA completions and student outcomes to help inform future policy direction. Information should be tracked across a variety of indicators such as demographics and regions, not just aggregate reporting.
As with any policy recommendation, a lack of information is a key obstacle to overcome. Leaders should plan to communicate broadly and consistently about the value of FAFSA completion as well as publicly share current rates of FAFSA completions with NCAN – which is already focused on this priority area in the state – and with state lawmakers, parents, students, school districts, and postsecondary institutions.
The Colorado Equity Champions Coalition and the working group fare positioned to galvanize action among the executive leadership in the state, the agencies that would implement the policies, and the legislature. Other stakeholders for engagement include leaders of higher education institutions, the secretaries of education and higher education, business leaders, and parents and students.
Colorado’s state agencies, legislature, advocates, funders, and district leaders will need to collaborate on a shared vision to fully align resources and efforts focused on increasing attainment. This group can drive the conversation and ensure that funding or other incentives to increase FAFSA completion are enacted.
FAFSA completion can lead to improved higher education attainment, but leaders, policy advocates, and lawmakers will need to remain committed for the foreseeable future to ensure that the policies are working as intended.
Why it matters
Since 2015, Colorado has been focused on its statewide attainment goal, Colorado Rises, which aims to do the following:
- Increase credential completion.
- Erase equity gaps.
- Improve student success.
- Invest in affordability and innovation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated impacts on student outcomes and enrollment. Colorado higher education institutions have experienced drops in enrollment as well as corresponding revenue losses. Further, gaps in K-12 student achievement between White students and their Black and Hispanic peers have increased during the last year and a half. The time is ripe for Colorado policymakers to elevate FAFSA completion as a strategic priority to boost postsecondary attainment and high school graduation rates and help keep students on track for thriving lives.