Growing momentum around FAFSA completion in Michigan

In Educational Attainment by Dan Hurley

With one of the highest forecasted declines in the number of high school graduates in the decade ahead among all states, Michigan needs to do all it can to encourage more graduating high school students to enroll in some form of postsecondary education. The economic prospects of the state, its communities, and its residents will depend on it. The state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives projects an 11 percent growth in the need for workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher through 2026, compared to a 4.9 percent growth for workers with a high school diploma. And the chasm in earnings and job security only continues to widen among individuals who have earned a four-year degree and those with a high school diploma.

Moving the dial on postsecondary participation rates is a heavy lift, especially as it involves concerns about college affordability. Messaging around the actual net cost of college is important—many students and their families are unaware that after factoring in all sources of financial aid, the actual cost of attending a Michigan public university is reduced by a full 40 percent on average. So too is getting more high school students to take steps to learn about financial aid opportunities.

And to be clear, when referring to financial aid, I mean grants and scholarships, not to be re-paid, as opposed to student loans, which do have to be repaid. Sources of such aid include the federal government, state government, community organizations and foundations, and financial support provided by the universities. Another important fact: 40 percent of students who graduate from a Michigan public university do so without incurring any debt in the process.

The key to unlocking all forms of financial aid begins with high school seniors completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA. The federal government uses the application to determine eligibility for the Pell Grant, which has an average award amount of $4,010 and for the current school year can be as high as $6,195. But the FAFSA is also used by most other student aid granting entities in determining students’ eligibility for additional financial support.

The FAFSA completion rate in Michigan for the 2018-19 federal financial aid award cycle was 56 percent, compared to 62 percent nationally, placing the state 28th among the states. The 44 percent who didn’t complete the FAFSA this past cycle represents 51,000 high school seniors.

Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA immediately enroll in postsecondary education, compared to 50 percent of those who do not complete the financial aid application. Further, FAFSA-completing high school seniors from low-income households are 127 percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education compared to their low-income peers who do not complete the form.

In Michigan, about 48 percent of students are eligible for Pell Grants. Translation: the nearly 25,000 Michigan high school seniors who may have been eligible for a Pell Grant but who did not complete the FAFSA may have collectively forfeited upwards of $100 million in financial aid. That is a lot of untapped money that could have been harnessed to help thousands more Michigan youth attend college and achieve their career and life aspirations.

It is remarkable how much is riding on whether young adults complete one form. Boosting the proportion of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA will literally translate into greater college-going rates and longer term will increase the much-needed supply of workers with college degrees, strengthening the state’s capacity to attract and retain employers.

A new year, more energy around FAFSA completion

Thankfully, there is a growing movement in Michigan to encourage more students to complete the FAFSA, and to assist them in doing so. The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) is promoting its annual College Cash Campaign, a comprehensive effort to increase FAFSA completion. The effort comes with a toolkit that can serve as a helpful resource for both students and school administrators. This year’s campaign is being bolstered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Governor’s FAFSA Challenge,” an initiative to incentivize high schools and students to complete the FAFSA. Using her gubernatorial megaphone in collaboration with MCAN will amplify messaging and will hopefully encourage more students throughout the state to file the FAFSA. The campaign’s goal is to achieve a statewide FAFSA completion rate of 75 percent in 2020.

In Southeast Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber, through its Detroit Drives Degrees initiative, is working strategically to boost educational attainment levels of that region’s population. Included in the effort is a Race to the FAFSA Line competition for high schools in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. MASU is helping to support this FAFSA completion competition.

The 15 state universities of Michigan have also united around a statewide campaign to boost awareness among high school students about all of the aid opportunities available to finance a college education. Through the GetMIDegree.org website and a comprehensive social media campaign, students are provided with resources to help them learn about the value of a college degree, find tips on completing the FAFSA, and get advice from other students about succeeding in college.

A state policy role in boosting FAFSA completion

 In the months ahead, Michigan lawmakers may have the opportunity to pass legislation that could make a dramatic impact on increasing the proportion of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA. Modeled after a recently enacted law in Louisiana, a bill has been introduced (HB 4614) that would require completion of the FAFSA as a condition of high school graduation. The results in Louisiana? This year it witnessed a 25 percent jump in FAFSA completion, propelling it to the #1 spot in the U.S. in the proportion of its high school seniors completing the financial aid application, at 82.6%. Texas is the second state to enact the FAFSA completion graduation requirement, which is set to be in place by January 2021. MASU supports such a law in concept so long as the final legislation allows parents or students to easily opt out in extenuating circumstances.

Tracking results by the day

The FAFSA application period runs October 1 through March 1 annually. Given the importance of having more students complete the financial aid application form, and the energized push to promote completion, there will be increased attention to Michigan’s performance during this application cycle. The latest statewide FAFSA completion figures can be viewed here. And the most current FAFSA completion rates at 585 Michigan high schools can be viewed here. To see where Michigan stands on FAFSA completion in contrast with the rest of the U.S. in real time, click here.

This increased attention to spreading the word about the importance of FAFSA completion is vitally important. Even more important will be the hoped-for tangible result of actually getting more high school seniors to file the federal financial aid form. Despite some streamlining of the FAFSA in recent years, it can still be a high-touch process. At the state level and the local level, a unified, collective push to generate greater FAFSA completion rates will yield positive results that will positively change lives one student at a time.

Daniel J. Hurley is the Chief Executive Officer at the Michigan Association of State Universities

@Daniel_J_Hurley     @MASUmichigan