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FAFSA Completion

Written by Dr. Brittany Whitley and Dr. Alan Moss
Published on January 29, 2022
Research Highlights

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.

  • 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.

Executive Summary

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.


  • 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.

Research Background

College Costs & Student Debt

Since 1990, college costs in the United States have increased between 2–3x (depending on school type) (Figure 1).1 Missouri law (RSMo 173.003, 2008) currently limits the tuition-setting authority of public higher education institutions by capping the extent to which they can raise tuition and required fees each year. In the 2020 school year, the average published cost of tuition and fees in Missouri was $3,910 for in-district students at public two-year colleges and $9,420 for in-state students at public four-year institutions.1 Prices for out-of-state or out-of-district students are typically 2–3x higher than in-state/district students.2 Other costs, such as cost of living in student or local housing, also increase the financial burden on students, particularly at institutions in regions with a high cost of living. Along with college costs, outstanding student debt in the United States has also tripled over the past thirteen years, from $545 billion in 2007 to $1.7 trillion in 2020.3 As of March 2020, U.S. borrowers with student loans over $80,000 (10%) held 45% of the total student debt.1

FAFSA Completion & Financial Aid

Students must complete the FAFSA in order to receive federal student aid (grants/scholarships, work-study, loans). States and institutions also use the FAFSA to determine financial aid eligibility, but completion rates vary widely across schools and districts. Need-based grants from states can increase college enrollment and persistence over time; the magnitude of the impact varies based on student eligibility and other program characteristics (2.5–4 percentage point increase in enrollment per $1,000 of aid).4,5

Between 2018-2020, the FAFSA completion rate in Missouri was between 43–45% of high school seniors (compared to 45–47% nationally).6 FAFSA completion rates also vary significantly by school and district (Figure 2).7,8


In the past year, the most significant reduction in FAFSA completions in Missouri has been among students in urban high schools, Title I high schools, and schools with over 40% Black and Hispanic students.6 This is consistent with FAFSA completion trends in other states during COVID-19, as well as drops in college enrollment during COVID-19, especially at community colleges.9

Factors Influencing FAFSA Completion Rates

There are several reasons why eligible students may not fill out the FAFSA,10,11 including:

  • No interest in going to college
  • Ability (or perceived ability) to pay for college without financial aid
  • Misunderstandings about eligibility and/or deadlines
  • Unwillingness to take on debt
  • Administrative/procedural hurdles, especially during summer without counselor access
  • Not eligible (e.g., students without social security numbers)

Many of these barriers are particularly relevant to students who are the first in their family to go through the college application and enrollment process; these families typically rely heavily on

outside assistance (e.g., school counselor, nonprofits, community members) when completing the FAFSA.12 Additionally, low-income students are less likely to complete the FAFSA than their higher-income peers.13 While there are federal exemptions for students who can’t acquire their parental information, students who struggle to fill out the FAFSA due to lack of parental support (e.g., independent students, absentee parents/guardians) may have difficulty obtaining parental consent for the exemption available under HB 2171 and SB 703.


State-Level Strategies to Improve FAFSA Completion Rates

A wide variety of strategies have been used by various states to increase FAFSA completion rates.14,15

Tying FAFSA Completion to Graduation Requirements

Three states—Illinois, Louisiana and Texas—currently require high school students to complete the FAFSA as a condition of graduation (Figure 3).16 In Louisiana, the first state to implement a mandatory FAFSA policy, FAFSA completion rates have increased and Louisiana has one of the highest FAFSA completion rates in the country. Improved completion rates in low-income districts significantly reduced the FAFSA completion gap between low- and high-income districts from 8.5 to 1.1 percentage points in one year.16 Importantly, no student has been prevented from graduating high school for FAFSA noncompletion under current law, suggesting that improved resources/time that schools devote to F

AFSA completion for all students is responsible for these changes (rather than individua
l fear/consequences of not graduating high school).

Incentivizing FAFSA Completion

Some states (e.g., Louisiana) utilize friendly competitions between schools or districts, where students at schools with the highest or most improved completion rates can earn prizes like small scholarships, vouchers for graduation costs (e.g., cap and gown), gift cards or pizza parties. Missouri has recently launched the Show-Me FAFSA Challenge, which will award scholarships to students who attend either the school with the highest FAFSA completion rate or the most improved completion rate.

Providing Resources for FAFSA Completion

Text messages, e-mails and postal mailers can be used to remind students about filing deadlines and/or provide information about the benefits of FAFSA completion. Providing students with concrete planning prompts (e.g., steps for completion, deadlines), in addition to information about the benefits of completion, can increase college enrollment, particularly among first-generation students.17,18 However, in some cases, national and statewide nudge campaigns have been less effective than locally implemented models.18 One mechanism by which these campaigns may improve enrollment is reducing some of the procedural hurdles that have been consistently identified as barriers to FAFSA completion.17 Many states (e.g., Missouri, Tennessee) also organize “FAFSA Frenzy” events where financial aid professionals, school counselors and other volunteers provide assistance (in-person or virtually) for families filling out the FAFSA.


  1. Ma, J., Pender, M., Libassi, CJ. (2020). Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid, 2020. College Board. Retrieved from https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2020.pdf.
  2. Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development. (2020). Missouri Comprehensive Fee Survey for Public Institutions of Higher Education: FY 2021. Retrieved from https://dhewd.mo.gov/data/documents/CompFee_FY2021_summary.pdf.
  3. Board of Governors of the US Federal Reserve System. (2020) Student Loans Owned and Securitized, Outstanding [SLOAS]. FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/SLOAS.
  4. Castleman, B. L., & Long, B. T. (2016). Looking beyond Enrollment: The Causal Effect of Need-Based Grants on College Access, Persistence, and Graduation. Journal of Labor Economics, 34(4), 1023–1073. https://doi.org/10.1086/686643.
  5. Scott-Clayton, J. (2015). The Role of Financial Aid in Promoting College Access and Success: Research Evidence and Proposals for Reform. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 45(3). https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol45/iss3/3.
  6. National College Access Network. (2021). Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker. Retrieved from https://formyourfuture.org/fafsa-tracker/.
  7. Office of Federal Student Aid. (2021). FAFSA Completion by High School & Public School District. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://studentaid.gov/data-center/student/application-volume/fafsa-completion-high-school.
  8. Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development. (2021). 2020-21 FAFSA Completion Report by Public High School. Retrieved from https://dhewd.mo.gov/fafsa-completion/.
  9. Gurantz, O., & Wielga, C. (2021). How Have FAFSA Submissions Differed During COVID-19? Educational Researcher, 0013189X21992059. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X21992059.
  10. Bahr,S.,Sparks,D.,Hoyer,K.M.(2018).WhyDidn’tStudentsCompleteaFreeApplicationfor Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? A Detailed Look. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2018061.
  11. Gurantz,O.(2018).NorthCarolinaStudentAidStudyGroup:ImprovingOutreach&Accessibilityof Financial Aid. NC Community Colleges & The University of North Carolina System. Retrieved from https://ogurantz.github.io/website/Gurantz_NC_PolicyBrief.pdf.
  12. Feeney,M.&Heroff,J.(2013).BarrierstoNeed-BasedFinancialAid:PredictorsofTimelyFAFSA Completion Among LowIncome Students. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 43(2). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1018067.pdf.
  1. Kofoed, M. S. (2017). To Apply or Not to Apply: FAFSA Completion and Financial Aid Gaps. Research in Higher Education, 58(1), 1–39. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-016-9418-y.
  2. Siddiqi,J.E.&Mikolowsky,J.(2020).BoostingFAFSACompletiontoIncreaseStudentSuccess. Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from https://www.ecs.org/boosting-fafsa-completion-to-increase-student-success/.
  3. EducationStrategyGroup.(2020).FastTrackFAFSACompletion.Retrievedfrom https://edstrategy.org/resource/fast-track-fafsa-completion/.
  4. Granville, P. (2020). Should States Make the FAFSA Mandatory. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from https://tcf.org/content/report/states-make-fafsa-mandatory/.
  5. Page,L.C.,Castleman,B.L.,&Meyer,K.(2020).CustomizedNudgingtoImproveFAFSA Completion and Income Verification. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(1), 3–21. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373719876916.
  6. Bird,K.A.,Castleman,B.L.,Denning,J.T.,Goodman,J.,Lamberton,C.,&Rosinger,K.O.(2021). Nudging at scale: Experimental evidence from FAFSA completion campaigns. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 183, 105–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2020.12.022.
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