(Patrick Semansky/AP)

The federal government provides more than $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study funding for college students, yet the number of high school students filing out financial aid applications to access that money is waning.

A trove of data released this week by the Department of Education shows fewer high school seniors are turning in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) than last year. As of June 3, submissions among high school seniors nationwide were down 4 percent compared with the same period a year ago. Although the department did not make national completion data available, officials suspect the decline is even higher as students often fail to fix mistakes after submitting the form. Between 9 percent and 10 percent of submitted FAFSA applications have not been completed in the last four years, according to the department.

Public high schools throughout Northern Virginia, suburban Maryland and the District have seen the number of completed applications either slip or plateau this school year. Completion rates flatlined in Montgomery County public high schools, remaining in the same 50 percent to 54 percent range as last year, according to federal government data. Prince George’s County public schools experienced about a 5 percent drop in FAFSA completions, with only 35 percent of high school seniors finishing up the form as of early June.

A little more than half of public high school seniors in Arlington and Alexandria completed financial aid forms, stalling the counties’ progress in raising the number of students finishing the FAFSA. Although the federal data shows a nearly 5 percent decline to 55 percent completions in the District, city officials say their public high schools have actually had more students completing the FAFSA this year. Education Department officials say the discrepancy may be because the federal data excludes older high school students.


College-bound students have up until the first day of class to turn in the FAFSA, but the earlier they hand in the application the better their chances of qualifying for more grants and scholarships because some states award aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Completing the form is especially critical for students who need help paying for school because colleges and the government use the FAFSA to dole out need-based and some merit-based financial aid. No family, however, should skip the application considering that a quarter of households earning over $100,000 received an average $9,304 in grants last year, according to a recent Sallie Mae survey.

The Obama administration has touted the importance of filling out the FAFSA over the years through a series of campaigns on social media, completion challenges and videos featuring first lady Michelle Obama. The effort produced a bump in completions at public high schools across the country, including ones in Alexandria, recalls Beth Lovain, executive director of the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, an organization that works with county schools. She remembers the excitement of the first lady visiting in February 2014 and offering encouragement as the team revved up its own campaign to get students to fill out the form. Completion rates inched up for a while as the organization hosted FAFSA workshops with free pizza or breakfast and raffles, but the numbers began trailing off even as the campaign continued.

Margaret Feldman, director of college advisement at the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, suspects some of the decline in completion is because students are having a harder time finishing their applications as a result of changes the federal government made to the application process. Families must now create an “FSA ID,” instead of using a four-digit PIN for online access to the FAFSA, a step that has been tripping up some people.

Counselors across the country say setting up the new log-in is time-consuming as both students and parents are now required to create IDs by, among other things, providing social security numbers and five security questions. Students have to write two of the questions themselves, come up with a significant date that cannot be their birthday, and if they forget the password, they must answer three of the questions correctly. Out of frustration, counselors say some families are submitting the form online without the electronic signature, which could delay the time it takes for students to receive financial aid information.

“It’s a very cumbersome process,” Feldman said. “It takes 15 minutes to just apply for the student’s FSA ID, much less the parents and much less filling out the FAFSA. A lot of our parents speak English as a second language, they’re working long hours and don’t really have the ability to come in on a Saturday and fill out the FAFSA.”

Education Department officials say replacing the PIN reduces opportunities for fraud and abuse. They say the department is trying to protect sensitive financial information of the more than 40 million people receiving federal student aid. Still, the hiccups in the switch is getting the attention of the White House. In April, the White House announced that the United States Digital Services will be working with the department to review and streamline the process for creating an FSA ID.

“This is particularly important because the ID doesn’t only allow you to get into FAFSA, but into your entire student loan and aid portfolio,” said Carrie Warick, director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network. “Students will use that ID well after they graduate, so it’s critical for the process to be simple.”

Fixing the process is also crucial as rising high school seniors will be able to submit the FAFSA in October, instead of January. Students seeking federal financial aid for the 2017-2018 school year will be able to use their parents’ 2015 tax returns, instead of waiting for 2016 tax documents. They will no longer have to estimate family income to answer up to 20 questions on the form. Since the information will come directly from the Internal Revenue Service, there will be no need for schools to spend hours verifying the data. All of this is meant to make it easier for college-bound students to access money to attend college.

Still, there are prevailing trends that will make it difficult for the government and school counselors to stem the decline of FAFSA submissions. If the job market continues to improve, fewer people may feel the need to enroll in college. College attendance historically soars during bouts of high unemployment. It is no wonder that the peak in FAFSA submissions occurred in the 2011-2012 cycle following a severe economic downturn, according to the Education Department. There are also pockets of the country where the number of high school students is expected to contract over the next decade, which will slow the current of teenagers heading to college.

Nevertheless, counselors say it is critical to get students heading to college to complete the FAFSA, and as the government simplifies the process, they hope more families will be encouraged to give it a shot.

Want to read more on paying for college? Check out these stories:

How to negotiate a better financial aid package

How your family finances factor into financial aid calculations

How to read a financial aid award letter