Financial aid applications keep students on college path

Monday, February 8, 2021

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Elizabeth Keest Sedrel
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Iowa College Aid recommends mandatory FAFSA to help fight ‘summer melt’

Applying for financial aid greatly increases the likelihood that students will follow through on their college plans, according to a research brief from Iowa College Aid.

In Iowa, about 1 in 5 high school graduates who indicate that they plan to attend college do not actually enroll the following fall, a phenomenon known as “summer melt.” Iowa College Aid found that students who file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are less likely to melt by 36 percentage points.

“College enrollment among new high school graduates has been slipping in Iowa,” said Mark Wiederspan, Executive Director of Iowa College Aid. “To meet future workforce demands, we need to move the other direction. By identifying this factor that contributes to summer melt, we can help students who want to go to college achieve that goal.”

Iowa College Aid recommends that the state consider requiring high school students to file the FAFSA, which determines eligibility for all federal aid and most state and institutional aid. Three states—Louisiana, Texas, and Illinois—have put such a requirement in place in the past three years. While these FAFSA mandates are relatively new, early research has found that they significantly decrease the gap in filing rates between high-income and low-income school districts, connecting more of the neediest students with financial aid opportunities.

The agency also recommends that Iowa administer a survey about students’ post-high school plans earlier in their high school years. Iowa students currently take the survey near the end of senior year, long after they ideally would have applied for financial aid. An earlier survey would allow school counselors and other staff to identify college-intending students and help them with the FAFSA.

Iowa has already begun taking steps to increase FAFSA completion rates. For instance, Iowa College Aid’s Course to College program helps participating schools identify and assist students who plan to go to college. The Virtual College Coach, launched a year ago, helps students with steps they need to take, including the FAFSA. Completion rates in Iowa had been rising until the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This new research underscores the importance of the FAFSA,” Wiederspan said. “Taking further steps to ensure that Iowa students apply for financial aid will help them fulfill their college intentions.”

This research is the first to focus specifically on summer melt in Iowa. Read the full brief here.