This post is part of a series examining how educational opportunities and outcomes differ across California.
As high school seniors across the state finalize their college applications, access and affordability continue to be top concerns. For many, determining how to pay for college is a key factor in whether they will be able to attend the school of their choosing—or if they will be able to attend college at all. In California, about 69% of high school students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and financial need is highest among groups historically underrepresented in higher education, including African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders.
Completing and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) allows low-income students to access federal Pell grants, work-study programs, and subsidized loans. The successful submission of this form is also necessary for students to access the state Cal Grant program, which covers tuition costs at UC and CSU for most California high school students, and is required for financial aid programs offered by local governments and higher education institutions. (Undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid but can complete a separate application for state aid.)
Though FAFSA completion is vital to improving college access and affordability, many California high school graduates do not complete the form—and the state saw a steep decline in FAFSA applications last year amid the pandemic. One 2017 estimate found that nearly 91,000 California high school graduates who didn’t complete the FAFSA would have been eligible for Pell Grant aid.
The interactive below shows wide variation across districts in FAFSA completion rates for the 2020–21 application year among students completing high school. FAFSA completion, on average, is highest in districts located in cities and suburban areas, such as the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego, compared to those in towns and rural areas. This broadly mirrors the geographic trend we see in college readiness and college enrollment; large coastal areas tend to have higher levels of educational opportunity than inland regions.
Nevertheless, some districts located in inland regions where college readiness and enrollment are relatively low have very high FAFSA completion rates. In addition, neighboring districts sometimes exhibit vastly different rates, suggesting that local rates could be highly dependent on district-level efforts and less so on student composition.
Perhaps surprisingly, district rates of FAFSA submission do not seem to be associated with the percentage of students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. As one example, many districts in San Bernardino County and neighboring Kern County have among the lowest FAFSA completion rates in the state, despite having high shares of students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
When we examine patterns by race/ethnicity, districts with higher levels of FAFSA submission tend to have somewhat higher shares of Latino students and lower shares of white students, but we do not see notable patterns for other racial/ethnic groups.
Encouragingly, state policymakers have recently taken steps to improve FAFSA completion rates. The most recent state budget requires that districts ensure their students submit the FAFSA or opt out through a signed waiver starting in the 2022–23 academic year; to achieve this, districts may make FAFSA completion a graduation requirement. Three other states (Louisiana, Texas, and Illinois) currently have a similar requirement, and eleven more have introduced similar legislation. In Val Verde Unified school district, where FAFSA completion has been mandatory since the 2017–18 school year and where almost 90% of high school students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, FAFSA submission is among the highest in the state.
Looking ahead, more research will be needed to determine if mandatory FAFSA completion policies improve college access and affordability for California’s students, especially those who may not enroll due to financial constraints. As the state strives to achieve equitable access to college and eliminate racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic gaps in college completion, ensuring that students have access to all the forms of financial aid available to them will be essential.