By Alejandra Cerna
March is a big month for high school students aspiring to attend college. It’s the month that students and families are hustling to make their decisions about what schools to apply to and how they plan to pay for college. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the priority deadline on March 15 is a critical step for students who lack sufficient resources to pay for college.
The share of students in this year’s senior class who has completed a FAFSA is at 13 percent in this application cycle. The overall number of applications this year show a 2 percent bump over last year for FAFSAs filed through February 14. With such a modest increase, the state on the whole won’t see broadened access to essential financial support unless numbers climb steeply in the last two weeks of the application period.
As weighty as they are, FAFSA completion rates should have regional and state-wide targets, and should be used as a metric to monitor progress in achieving the ambitious participation and completion goals for postsecondary education in the state. Currently, FAFSA completion rates are the purview of schools, districts, and local stakeholders. The most innovative partnerships at this level can shine a badly-needed light on the importance of financial aid applications.
In February, I had the opportunity to observe one such partnership when I volunteered – along with OpportunityTexas Coordinator Laura Rosen – to help students and families at a “Financial Aid Saturday” hosted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce at Manor High School. During a four-hour shift I fielded questions as far-ranging as whether to report a home as a countable asset to how to report an episode of homelessness. Every keystroke mattered because every family and student knew the stakes of submitting an accurate and timely financial aid application.
The total cost of attending college—including tuition, fees, books, transportation and room and board—can make postsecondary education out of reach for low-income Texas families without federal and state need-based grant aid. Timely FAFSA completion not only assures access to the vast majority of need-based aid, but also reduces the “sticker shock” that often discourages families and students from considering all suitable postsecondary programs. With so many Texas students facing serious financial hurdles, the state’s interest in strengthening access to need-based aid is considerable.
Of the 2001 cohort of Texas 8th graders, only 9 percent of those who were economically disadvantaged earned a credential from a Texas institution. The combined average for all students is 19 percent; only 8 Texas counties had that level of success with their poorer students. Economically disadvantaged students are also less likely than their higher-income counterparts to enroll in any postsecondary institution, with virtually the entire 9 percent gap between the two originating with enrollment at the state’s 4-year institutions.
Financial Aid Saturdays, which are held in communities state-wide, are being aided by several new tools from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).
Next year we will know more about local partnerships formed in areas where public high schools exhibit lower-than-average enrollment rates in postsecondary education. These partnerships, comprised of high schools and local colleges, will develop plans to address enrollment that include strategies to boost financial aid information.
A suitable next step would be to identify regional and statewide targets for FAFSA completion and leverage the lessons learned from innovative local partnerships happening across the state.
 The figure is based on overall enrollment of 11th-grade students in the 2012-2013 school year, and does not take into account students who dropped out before senior year. In total, 42,899 applications have been completed so far.
 The numbers reflect the omission of school districts who reported less than 5 applications completed at this point in time either in this year or last year’s cycle. DOE does not report exact numbers at this level due to privacy protections. While there are likely gains made in these districts, they represent a small share of overall completions. Data tracks applications from the current senior high school class who intend to enroll as first-time, first-year undergraduates in the fall of 2014.
 The cohort credential rate does not take into account Texas students who completed outside of the state.