More Idaho students apply for financial aid. Will it translate into an enrollment increase?

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BOISE — More than 9,300 Idaho high school seniors have already applied for federal college financial aid.

That’s well ahead of last year’s pace, so State Board of Education officials like what they see. They hope it translates into higher college enrollment numbers in the fall.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a critical piece of pre-college paperwork. Students must complete the form to qualify for federal grants, loans or work-study programs. The FAFSA is required to apply for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship. But Idaho’s FAFSA completion rates have been among the lowest in the nation.

Even so, the Idaho numbers have been improving, and the trend is continuing so far this year.

As of Tuesday, 9,310 high school seniors have completed a FAFSA, nearly a 42 percent completion rate.

While that might sound low, it is a significant increase from the graduating class of 2018.

On May 31, 2018, only 7,650 seniors had completed a FAFSA, a 33 percent rate.

“It’s been accumulating,” said Byron Yankey, who manages the State Board’s college and career advising program.

Several new state programs are playing a role in the improved numbers, Yankey said. Since 2015, high school seniors have received “direct admissions” letters from the State Board, telling them they are eligible to attend some or all of the state’s colleges and universities. Students can fill out free college applications at the board’s Apply Idaho website. Idaho is also four years into a program to add college and career advisers to work with seventh- through 12th-grade students; the Legislature put an additional $9 million into this program this year.

While this year’s FAFSA completion numbers are trending upward, the State Board is continuing to press the case.

On Friday, the State Board will send out a round of postcards to students, reminding them that it’s not too late to apply for college, or apply for financial aid.

Even though the March 1 deadline for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship has come and gone, students can apply for federal aid until June 30.

Students do tend to apply late for FAFSA — even during the summer.

Last summer, Idaho’s FAFSA completion rate improved by a third, going from 33 percent to 44 percent. And that could happen again this year.

“You just kind of see a continuous trend of students applying for the FAFSA,” said Andy Mehl, coordinator of the State Board’s longitudinal student data project.

While filling out a FAFSA is critical for students — and their parents — who are looking for help paying for college, the FAFSA completion rate represents an important milestone for state education officials. The rate also allows for state-to-state comparisons.

A year ago, Idaho’s FAFSA completion rate ranked No. 44 nationally, according to the National College Access Network. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit ranks FAFSA completion rates throughout the school year. Based on numbers from mid-April, Idaho has moved up to No. 39 this year.

Come August, state officials will learn whether the FAFSA trend translates into college enrollment, and an improvement in Idaho’s stagnant go-on rates.

But Yankey is optimistic, especially because the FAFSA is such a notoriously time-consuming form.

“We believe very few are doing this for fun and entertainment,” he said.

This article was originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on April 25. It is used here with permission.