Leaving money on the table: Idaho’s big financial-aid gap

In 2017, 75 percent of Nampa’s high school graduating class filled out a college application.

But only 55 percent of the district’s grads filled out a form to apply for federal financial aid.

A year later, the numbers were worse. Only 51 percent of Nampa’s grads applied for federal aid. Even in a community with high poverty rates — well above Idaho’s average — hundreds of students didn’t even apply for federal loans, grants or work-study jobs that could help offset the cost of college.

“It’s still a work in progress, and it’s not satisfactory to us as well,” said Scott Parker, the Nampa School District’s executive director for secondary education.

But this isn’t uniquely a Nampa problem. Nor is it uniquely an Idaho problem.

In 2018, only 44 percent of the state’s high school graduates applied for federal financial aid. Idaho’s application rates lagged near the bottom of a recent national ranking, alongside other Western states.

There is at least some hope, however. According to that same national study, Idaho’s numbers are improving. And state officials say they are working to build some momentum.

What is FAFSA — and how does Idaho stack up?

Before students and their parents can receive financial aid from Uncle Sam, they must first navigate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The reward, for eligible students, is need-based aid they can use at a two- or four-year college, or in a career-technical program. Filling out a FAFSA is free, as the name says, but it is by no means easy; the online form is famously complicated and cumbersome.

Nevertheless, more than 2.1 million high school seniors filed a FAFSA in 2018, according to the National College Access Network, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

This translates to a 61 percent national completion rate — and Idaho’s numbers don’t even come close.

Idaho’s completion rate ranked No. 44 nationally, according to the National College Access Network. Curiously, the seven states ranked below Idaho are all west of the Rocky Mountains: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Why FAFSA matters

Since 2010, Idaho’s education, political and business leaders have been pushing to get more high school graduates to continue their education. The result is the state’s much-discussed — and so far elusive — “60 percent goal.” Idaho wants 60 percent of its young adults to hold a college degree or professional certificate, but that number is mired at 42 percent.

One obstacle to college attendance, say education leaders, is affordability. As state leaders continue to extol the value of a college education, the cost of attending an Idaho college or university continues to rise. And that’s where FAFSA enters the picture. The form isn’t just a precursor to receiving federal aid. Students must fill out a FAFSA in order to qualify for a state Opportunity Scholarship.

And for the state, this represents a conundrum. Legislators have been plowing more money into this largely need-based scholarship for several years; this year, the state has $13.5 million available, up from $10 million. But because Idaho’s FAFSA completion rates are so low, a majority of high school graduates can’t even apply for a share of the money.

What’s the problem?

There is no one single factor behind Idaho’s low completion rates.

But demographics plays a role.

Consider American Falls — a rural district in Eastern Idaho’s Power County, where nearly one-third of residents are Hispanic.

American Falls district Superintendent Randy Jensen.

Ninety-six percent of American Falls’ seniors applied for college, and received at least one acceptance letter. But only 82 percent of seniors applied for the FAFSA. The problem, says Superintendent Randy Jensen, is that upwards of 15 percent of seniors had no Social Security card, and therefore could not finish the federal form.

Undocumented migrant students, who do not have a Social Security card, are effectively ineligible for federal aid or the state Opportunity Scholarship.

Another factor — with a decidedly Western flavor — is a deep-seated skepticism about all things federal. Some Idahoans are simply reluctant to share information with Uncle Sam, said Byron Yankey, who works on college and career mentoring programs for the State Board of Education.

But even if students and parents can get past their skepticism about the feds, they still have to overcome the daunting FAFSA form itself.

For some students who are already on the fence about college, the FAFSA doesn’t seem worth the hassle. Sometimes it’s easier to just not start, Yankey said.

Sometimes, it’s easier to quit along the way. Last school year, more than 600 of the state’s 23,000 high school graduates did just that.

“There are a lot of (forms) that are started and never finished,” said Andy Mehl, coordinator of the State Board’s longitudinal student data project.

Signs of improvement?

The National College Access Center did give Idaho some high marks this summer. The group says Idaho’s FAFSA completion numbers improved by 3 percent this year. Only nine states and the District of Columbia fared better.

The State Board grades Idaho’s FAFSA traffic differently — and as it turns out, more harshly. This year’s 44 percent completion rate represents a decline from the previous year. To look at the year-to-year comparison another way, 700 fewer seniors turned in  their paperwork in 2018.

But the State Board’s tracking software isn’t just designed to keep score. While the publicly available site provides school-level FAFSA data, another section of the site compiles student-level data. School counselors can see if a student hasn’t filed an application — or they can see if a student has hit a snag in the application process. In effect, Yankey said, counselors can check up when their students say they have finished their paperwork — as they invariably do.

In the State Board’s view, the FAFSA numbers are a leading indicator of sorts. Applying for financial aid is really an offshoot of several other board initiatives — such as direct admissions letters and College Application Week, designed to encourage seniors to look at Idaho colleges and universities.

“We’re just kind of linking these things together,” Yankey said.

In high schools across Idaho, it’s up to advisers and administrators to encourage students to apply for aid.

FAFSA nights have become the event of choice in many high schools — a chance for parents and students to come to school and get help with their paperwork, often from a college financial aid counselor.

But in Nampa, FAFSA nights reach only so many students. The problem, says Parker, is poverty — the same economic reality that makes financial aid so crucial. Some students and their parents just aren’t going to show up for an evening event, perhaps because parents are working a night job.

As a result, Parker says he hopes to get college advisers into the high schools during the day, so they can help interested students who have a free period.

“We have to be creative about our strategies,” Parker said.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

More reading: This November, Idaho Education News will take an in-depth look at education options after high school — with an emphasis on demographic gaps. Here is a link to Idaho Education News’ award-winning series from December.

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