FAFSA Completion Challenge

Through the $1.6 million FAFSA Completion Challenge grant, NCAN selected 22 U.S. cities to receive up to $55,000 each to raise FAFSA completion rates by at least 5 percent for the graduating Class of 2017. The goal of the grant – established as two significant policy changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in the fall of 2016 made applying for aid easier and better-timed than ever for low-income students – was to strengthen urban postsecondary ecosystems by increasing their FAFSA completion rates among high school seniors.

The Kresge Foundation, which generously funded the grant, announced the winners Sept. 13 at the 2017 NCAN National Conference in San Diego, CA.  Across the board, the cities logged an average increase of 4.43 percentage points, helping to reverse a four-year decline in nationwide FAFSA completions – an impressive feat considering their urban settings, which face unique challenges in successfully reaching all student populations. 
The work of each city was truly inspiring,” said Bill Moses, Kresge’s managing director, Education. “These cities are working with high numbers of under-privileged and underrepresented students, who benefit most from completing a FAFSA. We’re thrilled to learn about the innovative practices they used to work across their localities and across sectors to get there.”

Find stories of students from the 22 cities who successfully filed a FAFSA and received money for college at FAFSAstories.org. These 22 stories center on how real students overcame challenges -- from missing important information, being selected for verification, dealing with immigration issues, to being homeless and more -- to file a FAFSA and get support for their higher education future.

Greensboro came out on top, and grantees there received a $75,000 prize for finishing the Challenge with the highest completion rate (66.03 percent) and the biggest increase (13.76 percentage points) from the Class of 2015 – the year for which grantees provided baseline FAFSA completion data – to the Class of 2017.

Grantees in Charleston, WV and Cheyenne, WY received $50,000 each for logging the second-highest completion rate (62.44 percent) and the second-largest increase (12.61 percentage points), respectively.

Another five grantees won $25,000 in prize money for exceptional work around a particular theme. Columbus, OH was recognized for engaging a community ecosystem, while Jackson, MS impressed by involving the higher education sector. Los Angeles, CA excelled at overcoming barriers faced by its high population of undocumented students, and Phoenix, AZ was lauded for taking an especially strategic approach to FAFSA completion. Finally, San Juan, PR was singled out for creating systems change. 

The 22 organizations to receive grant funding spanned the education, nonprofit, government and for-profit sectors. They are:


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The 22 grantee cities – 16 of which met the Challenge – were not alone in their ambition: 46 others applied to participate. While data from all 68 cities helped NCAN and The Kresge Foundation show the need for this work – across these locales, the FAFSA completion rate for the graduating high school class of 2015 was just 48 percent – it also sent an important message: that increasing postsecondary completion starts with increasing FAFSA completion, and in that endeavor, we all have a role to play.

Students who file the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to attend college, yet just 61 percent of the high school class of 2017 applied for federal aid. What’s more, an NCAN study found that low FAFSA completion does not plague all students equally: In most states, high school seniors in higher-poverty school districts are less likely to complete the FAFSA than students in wealthier districts. That is, for every 10-percentage-point increase in the proportion of children living in poverty, a school district’s FAFSA completion rate declines by about 3 percentage points.

Grant Advisory Committee

To guide the FAFSA Completion Challenge grant, NCAN assembled an advisory committee of individuals with expertise in FAFSA completion strategies and data as well as urban higher education ecosystems. The committee reviewed grant applications, will advise NCAN on data issues, and will confirm winners of the additional prizes described above.

  • Lindsay Ahlman, TICAS
  • Caroline Altman Smith, The Kresge Foundation
  • Sarah Bauder, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Eddie Brambila, Illinois Student Assistance Commission
  • Diane Corbett, Ohio State University
  • Denise Davis, Educate Texas/TXCAN
  • Jennifer Dunn, College Board
  • Juan Garcia, ACT
  • Haley Glover, Lumina Foundation
  • Sarah Kirschenbaum, ECMC Foundation
  • Troy Miller, Florida College Access Network
  • Ed Pacchetti, Office of Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education
  • Lindsay Page, University of Pittsburgh
  • Pat Roe, USA Funds
  • Sarah Weiss, Washington Student Achievement Council

Grant Timeline

  • Award Announcement: May 24, 2016
  • Grant Funding Start Date: June 1, 2016
  • FAFSA Strategies Workshop: September 18, 2016, 1:30 to 5 PM (Detroit, MI)
  • Grant Funding End Date: No later than July 31, 2017
  • Grantee Final Report Deadline: July 31, 2017
  • Prize Announcement: September 2017


For more information or media requests, contact NCAN Communications Manager Allie Ciaramella or The Kresge Foundation Communications Officer Krista Jahnke

NCAN thanks The Kresge Foundation for granting the funding for the FAFSA Completion Challenge.