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A new survey by EAB, the education consulting company, of more than 15,000 high school students has found that 30 percent of both first-generation and low-income students said completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was difficult, a rate that is 10 to 15 percentage points higher than the proportion of other students who said it was.

In addition, the survey found that almost 40 percent of first-generation students, and 37 percent of low-income students, said they did the FAFSA themselves, compared to 11 percent of higher-income students.

The percentage of low-income students who had yet to file but said they planned to was twice as high compared to those with higher incomes.

The EAB survey on what students think of the FAFSA comes at a time when the aid application is undergoing changes. One provision of the COVID-19 relief bill approved by the last Congress in December reduces the number of questions on the FAFSA from 108 to 36. But the provision will not take effect until 2023-24, so the current FAFSA is still a matter of concern.

And the survey -- which focuses on why students haven't been filling out the FAFSA -- follows numerous studies in the last year showing that FAFSA completion is lagging. And those lags explain growing concern among admissions professionals that while competitive-admissions colleges are attracting more and more applicants, colleges where it's the norm to have filled out FAFSA are not.

The EAB survey was conducted from Feb. 23 to March 11. Most students surveyed (91 percent) plan to enroll in a college or university after high school. There was a wide mix of geography in the survey respondents. On race/ethnicity, 57 percent were white, 23 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 14 percent Black and 14 percent Asian.

Brett Schraeder, an EAB principal for financial aid optimization, wrote a blog post about the survey that featured suggestions for what colleges should do about the problem of students not filling out the FAFSA.

The first recommendation was to actually communicate about why FAFSA matters.

"Be clear with students, parents, and counselors about what things should not prevent a student from filing," he wrote. And "proactively communicate how they can help families who have lost income and their willingness to provide support during the process -- and be as flexible as possible around deadlines."

Other recommendations:

  • "Make sure students understand that you are available to answer questions and it is very much ok to get assistance from your college or university to complete the FAFSA."
  • "Meet students where they are, both physically and in terms of helping them to understand even the most basic elements of the process. Personal outreach and removing unnecessary barriers are key in helping students."

Schraeder said the survey illustrated the importance of recognizing that just because some students have access to parents who will know how to fill out the FAFSA, there are still lots of other students that do not.

"If we ever doubted the need to have a broad network helping students, including teachers, counselors, community-based organizations, and college representatives, our survey should put that doubt to rest," he wrote. "When we asked students who encouraged them to complete the FAFSA, both first-generation and low-income students cited high school counselors and teachers as the #1 and #3 most important, while parents were #2 and college representatives a very close #4. Parents topped the list for all students, and high school counselors, teachers, and college representatives came in right behind."

Colleges are taking steps to stress the importance of the FAFSA to students. The University of Lynchburg announced a program on Friday in which new students who fill out a FAFSA will get a Dell or Apple computer, and they may keep the computer upon successful graduation from Lynchburg.

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