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The Power of the FAFSA in Arizona

August 29th, 2019

By Rich Nickel

Across the country, advocacy organizations, funders, educators, and policymakers are devoting significant resources to efforts designed to increase the rate at which students and families complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). These efforts range from awareness-building campaigns, to philanthropic investment, to legislation making FAFSA completion a requirement for high school graduation (such as was recently passed in Texas).

Here in our state, the Arizona FAFSA Challenge has received notable public attention, as well as support from Governor Ducey and numerous partner organizations. The goal of the Arizona FAFSA Challenge is to increase FAFSA completion in Arizona to 50 percent in 2019 (up from 43 percent). For those of us here at College Success Arizona and others across the state who are committed to increasing college access and attainment, the Arizona FAFSA Challenge represents an important and worthwhile endeavor.

In addition to supporting the Arizona FAFSA Challenge, College Success Arizona is part of a cross-sector coalition, Project Benjamin, that was recently awarded a $1 million grant and named as an inaugural partner in the Alliance for the American Dream, an initiative of Schmidt Futures. Important additional local funding was also provided by Arizona Community Foundation and Helios Education Foundation.

Alongside its Project Benjamin partners—Arizona State University, Be A Leader Foundation, Achieve60AZ, and AdmitHub—College Success Arizona will continue to develop and refine technology-enhanced approaches to increasing FAFSA completion statewide.

People who are unfamiliar with the FAFSA, may ask why, in the grand scheme of things, Arizona should care about FAFSA completion rates and invest resources toward increasing those rates. Simply put, the power of the FAFSA (as discussed in this video about Project Benjamin’s efforts) is a key factor when it comes to college affordability, access, and attainment. As such, it contributes economic mobility for students and families and to the overall economic growth of our state. In 2017 alone, federal grant aid and loans received through the FAFSA added more than $2.16 billion to Arizona’s higher education system and economy.

There is no denying that federal financial aid can have a powerful impact on a family’s finances. For a family making $60,000 per year, the average federal financial aid award of $9,831 in Arizona amounts to a financial increase of 16 percent. But, if students and their families do not complete the FAFSA, then they cannot access federal financial aid, which is largest single source available in Arizona.

The FAFSA unlocks all types of federal aid, from grants and work-study to loans. In Arizona, this is especially significant because the state does not have a substantial need-based grant aid program, meaning that students who cannot afford a college education without financial aid must rely primarily on the federal government and institutional aid. Of all students attending Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and University of Arizona in 2018, 94.5 received at least one form of financial aid. Federal loans and Pell Grants account for 62 percent of the financial aid distributed.

Problematically, though, Arizona has one of the lowest statewide FAFSA completion rates in United States. Approximately 44 percent of 12th grade students have completed the FAFSA in 2019. By comparison, the majority of states have a FAFSA completion rate of at least 50 percent; the top ranking state, Louisiana, has a 79 percent FAFSA completion rate.

It is imperative that Arizona continues to seek out innovative and sustainable ways to increase FAFSA completion and to support college access and attainment more broadly. At College Success Arizona, we are excited by Project Benjamin’s potential to meaningfully advance statewide efforts to help more students and families access the resources that have the potential to prepare them for the jobs of the future, increase their earning power, and enhance their economic mobility. Our hope is that other organizations, leaders, and policymakers throughout Arizona will be likewise inspired to contribute and collaborate to support the future of our state.

Stay tuned for more information about this exciting work!

Rich Nickel is the president and CEO of College Success Arizona, where he leads the organization toward its goal of assisting all Arizonans in gaining access to, and successfully attaining, a college credential.

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