Students leave $30 million in financial aid unclaimed in one state alone – ^

Every year, students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the largest provider of financial assistance for college in the U.S. The federal government provides about $112 billion in grants, work-study and loans annually.

And every year, there’s money left on the table — a lot of it. In Colorado alone, the unclaimed funds total about $30 million, according to the state Department of Education. Colorado ranks 45th in the country in completing the FAFSA. The reasons are many: For instance, some students and their families find the aid forms complicated or think the aid is not meant for them.

There are direct consequences of leaving that money unclaimed. A state report says low-income and first-generation students are 63% more likely to attend college if they complete the FAFSA.

The financial aid office in the JSSB building on campus
MSU Denver helps students access financial-aid assistance in several ways, including holding campus workshops. Photo by Amanda Schwengel

“There’s a lot of jargon in financial aid because it’s policy language. It is not a student-centered approach to getting funding over to families,” said Will Simpkins, Ed.D., vice president for Student Affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

MSU Denver helps students access financial-aid assistance in several ways, including holding campus workshops. The Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships also participates in high school FAFSA-completion events and supports targeted efforts in Immigrant Services and TRIO Student Support Services and elsewhere at the University.

Simpkins said about 30% of MSU Denver students don’t have the financial-aid form on file, despite the many initiatives designed to help students. He also said MSU Denver’s Single Stop program goes one step further to help students access public benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food aid, Medicaid and the Child Care Assistance Program to ensure that students have support for basic needs beyond their tuition and fees.

“Our focus is on getting every student every penny of financial assistance that that we can,” Simpkins said.

 

Barriers to entry

There are about 100 questions on the FAFSA form that separate Colorado students from millions of dollars they could be using to pay for college.

The application begins easily enough, with simple questions such as asking a student’s name and contact information, and ramps up in a quest to decipher how much financial assistance the government should provide.

The interrogative gantlet continues by asking about things people might not even share with close friends, such as their immigration status, drug convictions, bank-account balances and the marital status of students’ parents. On top of that, many of the questions are written in complex language and require detailed private information from multiple people.

Bustling campus with leafy trees
Colorado ranks 45th in the country in completing the FAFSA. Photo by Mark Stahl

The amount of information needed prevents many students from finishing the form, said Marissa Molina, an MSU Denver trustee who served on a state Financial Aid Application Working Group with 20 education experts from secondary and higher education this past year. She said it’s especially difficult for students whose parents aren’t familiar with financial aid or those who don’t have a relationship with one or both parents.

“If you’re a first-generation student or an adult learner who has never filled this out, and all of a sudden you’re being asked all these questions that you may or may not have the answer to or you don’t even know how to interpret, it can just become too daunting for you to even try,” she said.

Other students may not submit financial-aid forms because they don’t think they will be eligible.

Simpkins said there is a pervasive narrative that only the poorest of the poor receive financial aid and that students in the middle class receive nothing. But 30% of MSU Denver students have their tuition and fees completely covered. And that number could increase to 35% to 40% with the expansion of the Roadrunner Promise, an MSU Denver program that pays tuition and fees for eligible students whose fees aren’t covered by other federal, state and institutional aid and scholarship programs.Even more students receive partial financial aid.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal financial aid, but Colorado passed a law in 2019 extending state financial aid to Dreamers through the Colorado Application for State Financial Aid, or CASFA. Molina, who was an undocumented college student and is now the Colorado state immigration director for FWD.us, said many immigrant students are afraid to fill out official forms.

“Sometimes, you have students who are U.S. citizens but have undocumented parents who don’t know they can fill out the FAFSA or they’re afraid to,” she said. “We don’t want to make this just about FAFSA but also those who qualify for CASFA and a more holistic conversation about financial aid.”

Reversing the trend

Recommendations to Improve Financial-aid Completion:

Maintain/improve existing programs and structures:

  • Maintain or increase funding to the student-aid-school-counselor grant program.
  • Fund web-tool upgrades and maintenance.

Short-term:

  • Streamline support for FAFSA/CASFA submission.
  • Revamp the FAFSA/CASFA tool kit.
  • Implement communications campaign.

Medium-term:

  • Incorporate financial aid in the Individual Career and Academic Planning process.
  • Create a state-endorsed financial-aid certification.
  • Streamline verification process across institutions.
  • Support innovative FAFSA grant to districts and community-based organizations.

Long-term:

  • Make FAFSA completion a requirement for high school graduation.

 

Colorado used to be one of the top states in terms of FAFSA completion. That changed once funding for support initiatives was redirected to other policy priorities, Molina said.

“The State of Colorado in a lot of ways has divested from higher ed, and that comes at a cost for the state as a whole,” she said. “We can have everyone go to preschool; we can have everyone go to full-day kindergarten, but at the end of the day when those kids graduate from high school, what opportunities are we offering those students?”

A report published by the Financial Aid Application Working Group includes 10 recommendations to help Colorado reach a goal of being in the top 10% in the country in financial-aid application completion (or have 80% of graduating high school seniors complete an aid application) by July 2026.

The recommendations, which range from web-tool upgrades to streamlined verification, were shared with Gov. Jared Polis and state legislators to serve as the basis of bill proposals or guidance for the governor and the Joint Budget Committee to guide state spending on education.

Knowing that many of these tactics will take additional resources, the working group prioritized them by timeline to help Colorado gradually climb the list of states with higher financial-aid completion.

“We need to be able to make investments in higher ed in order to be able to provide a return on investment to not just those families but also to our state,” Molina said. “This is part of building a Colorado that works for all and a Colorado that has a strong economy going into the future and meets the needs of the future workforce.”

Graduation requirement?

The last recommendation, to make FAFSA completion a requirement of earning a high school diploma, is a hot topic in education circles. Some states have already passed the measure.

A 2021 bill passed by the Colorado legislature created an incentive program that provides grants to local education providers that require FAFSA or CASFA completion a requirement to graduate high school, but there is no statewide requirement. The same act created the working group that Molina served on.

“The national conversation about mandates is one that’s really polarized right now,” she said. “One of the most important things to consider is cost. To mandate that out of a K-12 system that’s already really strained coming out of the pandemic, that is already underfunded, would be a really hard thing to do.”

Molina, a former teacher, recalled a colleague who helps every student she advises fill out the FAFSA. That teacher is the first person to school every day and the last one to leave, she said.

“We can’t go from being one of the worst states at FAFSA completion and all of a sudden people are mandated without a gradual implementation of key tactics,” she said.

Simpkins said high schools already have a lot of requirements related to accountability metrics and little capacity for college counseling in many school districts.

“The best-case scenario is we have a mandate that every high school student fills out the FAFSA and the state provides the resources to the school districts to do that and provides college counseling,” Simpkins said. “FAFSA alone is not what gets people in the door.

“Policymakers really need to think about the resources that will support the behavior that they’re trying to create.”

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