Should States Require Completion of the FAFSA for High School Seniors?  A Positive Outcome in Alabama

While I have participated in many great technology projects throughout my career, our recent project with the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) was the most impactful and personally gratifying. This project helped to ensure that all students were given the opportunity to attend college, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a student’s gateway to over $150 billion available in federal aid, aid available in most states, and aid from individual schools.  Unfortunately, Alabama students left roughly $67.8 million in unclaimed Pell Grant money on the table in the past.  FAFSA completion and college enrollment are closely associated, as 92% of graduating seniors across the U.S. who completed the FAFSA enrolled in college by the following fall.  However, due to the complex and confusing process, many students, especially those from low-income, minority, rural, and urban backgrounds, do not complete it.

To address this problem, ACHE partnered with Sierra-Cedar to implement Oracle’s Student Financial Planning (SFP) software. The goal of this project was to improve communications with Alabama high school students and their respective college counselors to drive higher FAFSA completion. Oracle SFP uploads each student’s data into the ACHE portal/dashboard to help district counselors identify which students still need to submit the FAFSA.  As a student initiates his or her FAFSA, a federal electronic Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR) is generated.  Counselors can view near-real-time (daily) reports of whether students have errors or missing documentation in their application, empowering them to offer individualized student assistance. Additionally, ACHE leveraged the Oracle SFP solution to generate letters to students to notify them of their status and recommend very specific actions required to complete their FAFSA.

In the first year, ACHE was able to increase the proportion of graduating seniors who complete a FAFSA from 52% (as of May 2021) to 60% (as of May 2022).  At the end of May 2022, the State of Alabama ranked first nationally in one-year improvement with a 30.4% increase in FAFSA completions.  This initiative allowed thousands of additional students to enroll in college and resulted in increased admissions to Alabama colleges and universities, especially the Alabama community colleges.

A key objective of this project was to provide all students with the ability to pursue a college education by obtaining needed funding.  Our use of technology to make this become a reality was extremely gratifying.  This initiative has already had a significant positive impact on Alabama students and families, along with fostering healthy and continued growth of the state economy.  And while the State of Alabama reaps present and future benefits, this program also serves as an ideal model for other states.  The number of states requiring FAFSA completion for high school seniors continues to grow and I view this as a positive trend.