College Success Linked to Filing for Financial Aid on Time

College of Education Researcher Examines First-Time College Students Behavior toward FAFSA

What do students who delay college after high school, attend part time or fail to declare a major during their first year all have in common? A new study from the University of Houston College of Education suggests these students are more likely to miss out on financial aid because of not filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or filing late. It is a significant relationship since filing late, or not at all, can impact success among first-time college students.

Most financial aid programs use information from the FAFSA to determine a student’s aid package. But unlike federal Pell Grants, state and institutional grant aid programs operate on a first-come, first-served basis. lylemckinney

“Financial constraints are a primary reason students drop out of college,” said Lyle McKinney, assistant professor of higher education. “Our study shows that college-bound students who applied for financial aid after the priority application deadline received, on average, significantly less state and institutional grant aid than students who filed early. This money that was left on the table could have been used to cover the costs of an additional course or pay for textbooks.”

McKinney and his co-author, Heather Novak of Colorado State University, examined data from more than 11,000 first-time college students in community colleges, public and private four-year universities across the country, specifically looking at their behavior toward filing the FAFSA. The examination revealed a connection between filing late (or at all) and delayed college enrollment, part-time enrollment or not declaring a major — all red flags that place college success at risk.

“It is troubling that the very groups who would benefit most from this aid — those at risk of not being successful in college — are the ones most likely to miss out on the money to help them start and finish college” McKinney said.

Every year, millions of eligible college students miss out on financial assistance simply because they did not file the FAFSA. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, McKinney’s study showed 44 percent of first-year community college students did not file a FAFSA, compared to 26 percent of students in public, four-year institutions and 18 percent of those in private, four-year institutions.

McKinney says there are a number of reasons why eligible students do not file or file late. Some students are simply unaware that filing a FAFSA is necessary to receive most types of financial aid. Others find the form too confusing, or do not have any guidance in completing the form.

“Our findings show that filing the FAFSA on time is critical, particularly for lower-income students who are the most dependent on financial aid to persist in college” McKinney said. “The results provide empirical support for efforts by the Obama administration and other federal policymakers of simplifying the FAFSA form and making the aid application process easier for students and their families.”

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