February 7, 2020

Why Arizona might look to the Bayou for policies to boost FAFSA engagement?

By Rich Nickel

Arizona must continue to find innovative and sustainable ways to increase Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion and support college access and attainment more broadly.

One of the most effective ways of helping students, especially those from families with great financial need, achieve postsecondary attainment is through federal aid, making the FAFSA a crucial step on students’ journey to education after high school.

In fact, for a family making $60,000 annually, the average federal financial aid award is $9,831. Last year alone almost $70 million in Pell Grant funding was left unclaimed in Arizona.

While the state has made significant strides in helping more of its students complete the financial aid application over the last several, Arizona still ranks 48th in FAFSA completion. Last year Arizona had a 47 percent completion rate, compared to the national average of 61 percent. 

This year, the state’s goal is to increase FAFSA completion rates to 52 percent, and to 79 percent by 2030.

In Sept. 2018, Governor Doug Ducey, the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, Helios Education Foundation, College Success Arizona, Achieve60AZ, AzCAN and ASU announced the state’s AZ FAFSA Challenge, which promotes FAFSA completion through a dashboard and website, financial incentive as well as challenges, training, and webinars. 

College Success Arizona has also worked to help raise FAFSA completion through its involvement with Project Benjamin, a chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to answer students’ questions regarding the FAFSA application. Targeted text messages are proven to increase FAFSA completion and lead to significant improvements in college enrollment. 

We know that 84 percent of students who complete the application end up going to a postsecondary institution, but the aid’s power doesn’t stop there. FAFSA also contributes significant economic mobility for not only the students and families but the overall economic growth in our state.

In 2017 alone, federal grant aid and loans received through FAFSA added more than $1.16 billion to Arizona’s higher education system and economy. 

However, if we want to continue the momentum of increasing FAFSA completion, the state must implement policies that help support social initiatives.

In 2015, the state of Louisiana had a completion rate of just 56 percent, lower than the national average. That same year, it became the first state to include FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement.

Now, Louisiana has the highest FAFSA completion rate in the United States (82.6 percent), and initial data shows that it is starting to create a positive impact on postsecondary enrollment of low-income students.  Since then, Tennessee, Illinois and Texas have followed suit. This year there are already additional states considering this policy change.

It’s not a stretch to assume that if Arizona passed similar legislation, it could reach its 2030 goal of 79 percent and in turn, increase the number of low-income students that enroll in postsecondary education and succeed.

We are excited to continue working toward the FAFSA completion goal as well as see the continued impact of Project Benjamin and the AZ FAFSA Challenge in the state. We hope that other organizations, leaders and policymakers throughout the state will likewise be inspired to advance the goal.

Rich Nickel is the president and CEO of College Success Arizona, where he leads the organization toward its goal of assisting all Arizonans in gaining access to, and successfully attaining, a college credential.