(NerdWallet) – High school graduates left billions of dollars in free college aid on the table by not filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, in 2022. Among the class of 2022, 44% of high school graduates skipped the FAFSA — and eligible students left behind $3.58 billion worth of Pell Grant money — per a January analysis by the National College Attainment Network, or NCAN.
The need-based Pell Grant is the largest federal grant program offered to U.S. undergraduates, and 2022 high school graduates who qualified for it received an average award of $4,686, the NCAN report found. A Pell Grant does not need to be repaid; it’s free money. There are a few caveats to the report, however. FAFSA noncompletion percentages are based on the entire high school class of 2022, thus assuming that all of these students would want to go directly to college. Plus, not everyone can fill out the FAFSA. Undocumented students, for example, are not eligible for federal college aid, including Pell Grants, and are typically blocked from the FAFSA.
» MORE: What is a Pell Grant?
The class of 2022’s relatively high 44% national FAFSA noncompletion rate nonetheless marks an improvement from 2021 — the report’s debut — when 46% of students skipped the application, forgoing roughly $3.75 billion in Pell Grants.
The findings underline the work still to be done to encourage demand for higher education, says Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s senior director of data and strategic initiatives. “The overarching message here is that there is slack in the postsecondary pipeline,” says DeBaun. “We are not connecting all the students that we can with available financial aid.”
Filling out the FAFSA is the key to unlocking federal, state and school-based loans and aid — including Pell Grants, work-study options and even some private scholarships. You should complete the FAFSA if you’re considering attaining a higher education, regardless of whether you’re currently enrolled or accepted to any schools. The application applies to most types of universities, including community colleges.
Rebound of the college-bound
The slight drop in FAFSA noncompletion percentages fits into a larger narrative of college applications and attendance rebounding after a pandemic slump. College freshman enrollment is improving steadily, though it remains below 2019 levels. In the fall of 2022, freshman enrollment was up 4.3% from the fall of 2021, an increase of almost 100,000 students, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Admissions applications indicate that number is poised to grow in the year ahead. Through Jan. 1, 2023, nearly 1.1 million students applied to college for the first time — a 20% increase from the 2019-2020 application cycle, according to Common App, a nonprofit membership organization of universities that facilitates admissions applications. Of those students, underrepresented minority applicants increased by 30% and first-generation applicants increased by 35%.
» MORE: Your FAFSA questions answered
Not all states are on equal footing
The percentage of high school graduates who didn’t complete the FAFSA varied widely from state to state. Alaska, Utah and Oklahoma demonstrated the highest 2022 noncompletion rates, at 65%, 62% and 57%, respectively. On the other hand, Washington, D.C. (26%), Tennessee (29%) and Louisiana (31%) had the lowest noncompletion rates.
State policy decisions could help explain the discrepancies, says DeBaun. For example, Louisiana became the first state to make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement, starting in the 2017-2018 academic year — although students have some ways around it, like getting a parent to sign a waiver. Tennessee promises free community or technical college to all of its high school graduates, but eligibility hinges upon completing the FAFSA.
Aid deadlines vary
The FAFSA nonparticipation rates featured in NCAN’s analysis could change in the coming months, because the high school class of 2022 still has time to complete the FAFSA. The 2022-2023 application will remain open until June 30, 2023. And students enrolled in college can still receive federal aid for the entire current academic year, including Pell Grants and direct loans, says Jill Desjean, a senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
However, states and universities typically have their own, earlier FAFSA deadlines for students to qualify for other types of aid. Many of those deadlines have passed for 2022 high school graduates who enrolled in college this past fall.
» MORE: When is the FAFSA deadline?
Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after it opens ahead of the academic year during which you plan to start college. The FAFSA for the 2023-2024 school year opened on Oct. 1, 2022. “The earlier you file, the better, but students who miss a deadline shouldn’t just give up,” advises Desjean. “Especially with schools, where [students] might be able to request an exception to the deadline if they have a valid reason for missing it.”