Aid applications down again as more Minnesota seniors may skip college

Despite a major initiative by state education officials, the number of high school seniors filling out college aid applications, a key predictor of interest in college, continues to decline. The latest figures show that Minnesota ranks 43rd among all states in the percentage of seniors that have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as of this month, nowhere near the goal set by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Minnesota has a statewide goal for FAFSA filing! To combat recent declines in FAFSA filing among Minnesota’s high school seniors, the 2020 Minnesota Legislature enacted legislation directing the Office of Higher Education (OHE) to set an annual goal for FAFSA filing among high school seniors. For the class of 2021, only 48% of seniors filed a FAFSA, an all-time low in recent years. In coordination with the Minnesota Department of Education, OHE has set a goal of increasing FAFSA filing by 5 percentage points every year for 5 years, with a focus on closing gaps in FAFSA filing for Black, Indigenous, and other students of color. Therefore, for the class of 2022, our state’s goal is to see FAFSA filing increase to 53%, while closing gaps in FAFSA filing by race/ethnicity.

So far, just one in three Minnesota seniors — 34 percent — have completed a financial aid form, an indicator used by higher education officials to project college admissions. That’s a whopping 20 percent below the state’s goal.

Last fall at the start of the academic year, the Star Tribune highlighted the state’s increased emphasis on convincing students to get in their aid applications early.

Minnesota education officials have set an aggressive new goal to increase the percentage of state high school seniors who file for college financial aid by 25% over the next five years.

Just 48% of Minnesota seniors in the class of 2021 filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the state’s lowest share in recent years, ranking it near the bottom of the nation. State education leaders want to see Minnesota’s FAFSA completion percentage increase by 5% annually until it reaches about 75%.

“We know that FAFSA filing really is considered to be the single greatest indicator that a student will enroll in college following high school,” Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said.

Officials shrugged off last year’s decline by citing the impact of the pandemic on students’ learning and lives. Nevertheless, there were questions raised about the effectiveness of the state’s program from the start.

Minnesota School Counselor Association Co-President Tanis Henderson said she would like to see the state create FAFSA informational brochures that schools can distribute to students and families.

“The Office of Higher Ed is great at pulling some of that stuff together, but I don’t know that the messaging gets down to the people who are actually going through it,” said Henderson, a counselor at Grand Rapids High School. “It really has to be a multifaceted approach.”

Some college student advocacy groups in Minnesota have called for the state to make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement, a step they believe would result in more seniors pursuing higher education. A handful of states, including Louisiana and Texas, have done this.

Instead of holding seniors’ high school diplomas hostage to filling out the FAFSA, however, education officials might consider other factors responsible for turning off more students —like crushingly high tuition and student loans and repressive political correctness that increasingly takes the value and fun out of college life.