Data Tool: Racial Disparities in Financial Aid Completion

College affordability is one of the most significant barriers to a postsecondary degree. One key to accessing financial aid is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, many students of color in California attend schools with low FAFSA completion rates. Approximately $550 million in federal and state aid goes unused annually by students in California because they are either unaware of the aid, unsure how to apply, or uncomfortable sharing their information. After years of advocacy from students, families, and educators, California’s 2021-2022 state budget includes an investment to ensure every high school senior completes a financial aid application. This investment is a significant win for financial aid access – a win that can only be realized with proper implementation.

This data tool is the first of its kind to share data on financial aid application completion by race and ethnicity. The tool is intended to help local decision-makers understand and address racial disparities in financial aid completion and to equip local education leaders with resources to take action to close racial/ethnic gaps in financial aid application completion. This is a crucial step toward ensuring students and families have access to the state and federal grants they need to pay for college.

This data tool combines 2018-19 California Department of Education (CDE) enrollment data for 12th-grade students at each high school with California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) 2018-19 FAFSA completion data by race. Providing demographic information on FAFSA forms is optional for students; therefore, CSAC partnered with CDE to match students’ demographic information as accurately as possible based on a combination of variables such as name, date of birth, and school. For privacy purposes, data is suppressed where the number of FAFSA applications for a racial and ethnic student group at a school were fewer than five (e.g., value displayed is “<5”). In some cases, FAFSA completion numbers exceed those of 12th grade enrollment: Enrollment data is based on Fall Census Day enrollment, whereas FAFSA completion occurs in the spring. As a result, FAFSA completion numbers may be higher than enrollment numbers due to student mobility or later enrollment.

Recommended Actions for Local Education Leaders:

To ensure all high school seniors complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the 2022-23 academic year, local education leaders should:

  • 1. Create sustainable approaches to monitoring the status of FAFSA completion, especially across race and income.
  • 2. Provide targeted supports for completing and submitting financial aid applications for students and families based on race-specific data available through this tool.
  • 3. Establish partnerships with education technology and community-based organizations – primarily those embedded in Black and Latinx communities – to increase financial aid application completion rates through programming, digital tools, and additional support.
  • 4. Engage authentically and meaningfully with parents and families to build their knowledge about financial aid options in culturally sustaining and convenient ways for the most marginalized families.
  • 5. Support and encourage the design of systems, tools, and events that provide information and advice that is responsive to the needs of diverse students and families.

Learn more by visiting our Financial Aid Toolbox. This online resource contains best practices and bright spots for increasing Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and California Dream Act Application (CADAA) completion rates at the school and district level.

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