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Millions of high schoolers don’t fill out financial aid forms — and leave billions on the table

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Clipboard that reads Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) lays on desk with keyboard, money and a book next to it.

Billions of dollars in Pell Grant money went unused last year. At least seven states have made filling out the FAFSA a requirement for high school graduation. Getty Images

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Three billion, six hundred million dollars: That’s how much college aid money in the form of Pell Grants high school seniors and their parents left on the table last year, all because they didn’t bother to fill out a federal financial aid form. The number was compiled by the National College Attainment Network, which also found that more than 2 of every 5 seniors completely skipped submitting the form. But there are efforts underway to change those stats.

For anyone to receive federal aid for college, they have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA. The paperwork has a reputation for being about as fun as it sounds. 

“There are a lot of folks who just decide, ‘It’s not worth it for me to spend time to complete the form when I’m not even sure if I’m going to college,'” said Bryce McKibben of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

Some students are more uncertain than usual coming out of the pandemic. Plus, their parents may not be so eager to hand personal financial details over to the government, according to Andrew McMillan, principal at Chapman High School in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

“We’re a blue-collar, working-class area, and we have to really convince our community that there’s nothing wrong with applying for this federal aid,” McMillan said.

This convincing includes raffling off laptops to prod students to fill the form out. Chapman also holds FAFSA nights, when students can come with their parents to learn about putting all their financial information into the system.

“I kind of tell people it is like the [Department of Motor Vehicles] — just bring everything you can,” McMillan explained.

At least seven states have made filling out the FAFSA a requirement for high school graduation, including the one with the most school-age kids, California. These mandates work, said Bill DeBaun, a senior director with the National College Attainment Network.

“We see California is up about 22% year over year in terms of number of FAFSA completions,” DeBaun said.

In addition, the Department of Education is working to make the FAFSA easier to complete.

“The form for a long time has been just too long,” McKibben said. “There have been a number of questions that really trip students up.”

Beginning next year, students will be able to import their tax information into the form directly from the IRS, making it a little bit less of a hassle than a trip to the DMV.

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