NCAN Study Confirms Lack of Awareness about Student Aid for College

October 3, 2016

By Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations

Almost all low-income students are eligible to receive federal grant aid for college, but NCAN members are well aware of how challenging it is to get students to apply. Nationally, only 45 percent of high school seniors complete the FAFSA by the time they graduate[i]. Unfortunately for those of us working to increase FAFSA completion, not a lot of great research exists about why students don’t apply. The best survey is of students who have already made it to college, 20 percent of whom failed to apply for any financial aid in 2011-12. Of these, 44 percent said they didn’t apply for aid because they thought they were ineligible.

To better understand the disconnect between aid eligibility and applications, in July 2016 NCAN conducted a survey of 150 low-income students high school graduates ages 17 to 20 who hoped to or had recently entered postsecondary education. Half had applied for aid and half had not. Our goal was to explore some of the reasons why students believed they were not eligible for aid. Our most important survey finding won’t surprise college access and success practitioners: More than half of non-applicants said they “don’t know anything about financial aid.”

So what difference does it make whether a student thinks they are ineligible for aid or doesn’t know what financial aid is? Plenty, if you are designing broad solutions to the non-filing problem. For instance, many NCAN members and friends provide FAFSA completion assistance, which is incredibly helpful to individual low-income students and parents who often have the most difficulty completing the application. But with more than 20 million FAFSA completions annually, we can’t provide enough one-to-one help for every student, and most individuals complete the FAFSA on their own. Thus, we would benefit from complementing the one-on-one strategy with a broad FAFSA awareness campaign conveying the basic message that students can get money for college.

To that end, NCAN launched the Form Your FutureTM campaign on Sept. 30. We encourage all members and friends to consider how to put the campaign to work in their own communities to promote their FAFSA completion activities as well as to help many more students learn that financial aid exists for them and they can apply at

Our survey also confirmed or raised additional insights and questions for further exploration:

  1. The whole question of “eligibility” is moot if students don’t actually know anything about financial aid.
  2. There is no lack of information about financial aid; it’s just not getting to the students who need it most.
  3. Many students who did not apply were not confident that they could rely on their schools for support.
  4. Students whose parents did not attend college were as likely to apply for financial aid as those whose parents did attend college.
  5. Students who did not apply for financial aid were more likely to have a negative perception of loans.
  6. Males were more likely to be misinformed/uninformed about financial aid and to not want aid in general.
  7. Students who did not apply for financial aid were more likely to prefer to pay for their schooling out of pocket.
  8. Students who did not apply for financial aid were more likely to believe that their parents did not want to share their information.
  9. Hispanic students were more likely to believe that there were opportunities to receive financial aid.

[i] The number of FAFSA applications by applicants 18 and under through Q2 of 2014 reported in the U.S. Department of Education’s FAFSA Data by Demographic Characteristics, 2014-2015 Application Cycle, divided by the number of U.S. high school graduates in 2013-14 estimated by the National Center for Education Statistics.

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