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#AdvocateFirstgen by Demystifying the FAFSA

The Center / February 07, 2023


FAFSA Application

The National College Attainment Network recently reported that nearly $3.6 billion in Federal Pell Grants went unclaimed because the class of 2022 did not complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This finding is likely to revive calls for states to make FAFSA filing a requirement for high school graduation. As a supporter of first-generation students, how might you #AdvocateFirstgen on the issue of mandatory FAFSA completion?

At first glance, requiring FAFSA completion appears to benefit first-generation students since the applications reveal eligibility for Federal Pell Grants. The average Pell Grant award for the 2022-2023 academic year was $4,166–with the maximum award set at $6,895. Nationwide, 34% of undergraduate students receive Pell Grants, while 48% of first-generation college students qualify for this type of funding. Based on these numbers, ensuring that potentially eligible students complete the FAFSA would benefit many first-generation students. 

For many first-generation students, financial aid and scholarship application processes are part of higher education’s “hidden curriculum.” Lack of knowledge of the college experience and associated processes are common for first-generation students and can be particularly pronounced when navigating Federal Student Aid.

Mandatory FAFSA completion may erect hidden barriers to first-generation students and their families.

Some barriers to FAFSA completion include: 

Given these common barriers, mandating that students complete the FAFSA before graduating high school may disproportionately affect first-generation students negatively. To date, five states (Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, and Texas) require FAFSA completion prior to high school graduation. The laws generally include a provision whereby students can opt out of completing the applications by signing a waiver. However, students and families with a limited understanding of the FAFSA process and its potential benefits may simply sign the waiver to avoid the process

Insisting that proposed legislation include additional resources and funds to increase personal assistance with the FAFSA may be the best way to #AdvocateFirstgen on this issue.

With these considerations in mind, how can you #AdvocateFirstgen on this issue?

It is disappointing to learn that eligible students, many of whom are first-generation, did not pursue an opportunity to lower their college costs. However, mandatory FAFSA completion may erect hidden barriers to first-generation students and their families and therefore may not be the simple solution student success advocates seek. Insisting that proposed legislation include additional resources and funds to increase personal assistance with the FAFSA may be the best way to #AdvocateFirstgen on this issue.


What actions, if any, has your state taken to mandate FAFSA completion? How has your institution worked to demystify Federal Student Aid? Let us know by tagging @FirstgenCenter on social media and using #AdvocateFirstgen.