Alaska is last in the nation at FAFSA completion, leaving millions in college aid on the table

Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé seniors Jade Clements and Kyra Wood sit in college and career advisor Jessica Dean’s classroom on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

High school seniors are waiting longer than usual to get financial aid offers from colleges this year after a bungled rollout of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The FAFSA underwent major changes to make it easier to fill out and expand access to Pell grants – need-based grants that students don’t have to pay back. But the launch was plagued with delays and problems, and instead of opening as usual on Oct. 1, the form had a soft launch on Dec. 30. 

Colleges are still waiting to get FAFSA data from the federal government, which means prospective students are waiting on financial aid offers.

“Probably in April is when we’ll be able to have all the information to give students a good idea of what they’ll be eligible for,” said Jennifer Sweitzer, the associate director of financial aid at the University of Alaska Southeast. 

Sweitzer was at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé on a recent Saturday to talk to students and parents about the new FAFSA. Jessica Dean, a college advisor at the high school, helped organize the event.

“Typically, everyone kind of knows where they’re going by May 1,” Dean said. “But this year, we’ll see.”

Emily Herman stopped by. She said waiting to hear about financial aid is dragging out an already stressful time for her daughter. 

“It’s a huge piece to the puzzle, and with it coming in last, it really is going to be, for our family, the determining factor of where she goes,” she said. “There’s a lot on the line, and these kids just want to make their decisions.”

Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé college and career advisor Jessica Dean greets students and parents at a FAFSA event on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

Alaska has the lowest submission rate in the country

Herman and her daughter submitted the FAFSA weeks ago. But a lot of Alaska’s high school seniors haven’t. Less than 13% of them had submitted a FAFSA as of late February, according to the National College Attainment Network. That’s the lowest of all 50 states.

Alaska’s submission rate tends to be one of the lowest in the country. Sana Efird, executive director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, wants to change that.

“The number one reason we hear for not pursuing a postsecondary program is the cost,” Efird said. “That’s why the FAFSA is so important.”

More than $6 million in Pell grant money went unclaimed by Alaska high school seniors in 2022, according to the National College Attainment Network.

And the FAFSA opens doors to more than just federal aid. It’s also a requirement for the merit-based Alaska Performance Scholarship and the need-based Alaska Education Grant, which both help students pay for in-state university tuition and some career and technical education programs.

But despite those benefits, Efird said many students and families don’t complete it.

“People perceive the FAFSA as a very complicated, time-consuming form that they have to fill out,” Efird said.

Efird said there are also misconceptions about how much financial information families have to provide. 

“The federal government already has all the income and tax information, so it’s not new information that you haven’t provided to them,” she said.

Another misconception is that filling out the FAFSA locks you into a loan.

“You can also be approved for loans, but you as the individual or the family making that decision can say no,” Efird said. “You don’t have to accept anything.”

High school seniors in Alaska might also see other jobs – like construction or commercial fishing – as more lucrative or accessible than college right after high school.

Bill DeBaun directs data and strategic initiatives at the National College Attainment Network. 

“Students with parents who went to college are themselves more likely to go to college,” DeBaun said. “You have a lot of first generation students in Alaska whose families either have not needed to attend college professionally, or who have not had the opportunity to do so, or both.”

Outmigration is helping that pattern continue. More people have been leaving Alaska than moving here for the last decade.

“If you’re not retaining the students who you raise who then do go on to college, either in state or out of state, or if you’re not attracting them back into the state, then you’re not getting into that virtuous cycle of continuing generation college-going,” DeBaun said.

Students and parents could talk to financial aid advisors from the University of Alaska Southeast, along with representatives from community groups, at a FAFSA event at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. (Clarise Larson/KTOO)

To prepare for the rollout of the new FAFSA, the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education invited representatives from high schools, postsecondary programs, Alaska Native organizations and the state to a summit in October. That led to smaller events, like the one at Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé, and bigger efforts, like virtual FAFSA trainings for counselors and others to help families throughout the state with the new process.

Schools, states and the federal government each have their own FAFSA deadlines. The federal deadline for the 2024-2025 school year isn’t until June 30, 2025, but other scholarship deadlines are often much earlier. For example, the University of Alaska Anchorage advises students to apply for the Alaska Education Grant as soon as possible after the FAFSA opens.

Universities are doing what they can to help this year’s seniors, including delaying their FAFSA and decision deadlines. That’s been good news for Kyra Wood, one of Dean’s students.

“I’ve gotten an email from every college I’ve applied to that they’re pushing it back or they’re accepting it for longer, which is good,” he said. “I’m glad I wouldn’t have to be at the mercy of a system that’s going slow to try to get in and get financial aid.”

In the meantime, he’s applying to other scholarships that aren’t tied to the FAFSA process.

Students and families can find free online resources, including how-to videos for filling out the FAFSA, on the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education’s website. There’s also one-on-one support available for students and families by phone, email or Zoom

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