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FAFSA Completion

March 26, 2021
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WRITTEN BY Dr. Brittany Whitley

Higher education costs (e.g., tuition, fees, housing) can create barriers to college enrollment and graduation, especially among low-income and first-generation college students. Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required for federal financial aid, as well as most state and institutional scholarships/grants. However, many eligible students do not complete the FAFSA. States have implemented several strategies to increase FAFSA completion by requiring students to complete the FAFSA prior to high school graduation, incentivizing FAFSA completion with prizes, or providing free FAFSA completion resources. Senate Bill 703 and HB 2171 would both require students to complete and submit the FAFSA before receiving their high school diploma, beginning in 2023. Students may be exempted from this requirement if they plan to enlist in the armed forces or receive parental consent.  


  • When adjusted for inflation, the cost of tuition and fees for public-two year institutions in the United States has doubled over the past thirty years; tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have almost tripled since 1990.
  • Need-based financial aid can increase college enrollment and retention by reducing the financial burden on low-income students.
    • Student characteristics such as academic performance and family/personal responsibilities also influence college enrollment and completion.
  • Between 2018–2020, the FAFSA completion rate in Missouri was between 43–45% among high school seniors (compared to 45–47% nationally). 
  • Several real and perceived barriers can impact whether or not a student completes the FAFSA, such as form complexity and administrative barriers, access to information about parental income and tax filing, and understanding of eligibility.
  • States that require high school students to complete the FAFSA as a condition of graduation (e.g., LA) have reported improved FAFSA completion rates, especially in low-income school districts. 


  • Obtaining and renewing financial aid requires additional steps after FAFSA completion. Several months after submitting the FAFSA, for example, students receive information about their federal aid eligibility, which will impact overall/remaining college costs.
  • Because mandatory statewide FAFSA policies have only been implemented over the past five years, the long-term effects (e.g., maintaining/improving completion rates within schools, effects on borrowing behavior) of such programs are unclear.


This Note has been updated. You can access the previous version (published March 2021) here.

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