Blog Archives - The Campaign for College Opportunity

Why Thousands of Eligible Students Fail to Complete Their FAFSA


Each February, thousands of students across California will learn about obscure sounding tax terminology. Too often, whether a student can piece together enough knowhow about the tax code will determine if they learn about the help available to pay for college.

“What’s our adjusted gross income?”

“How do you count how many people are in our ‘household’?”

These are just two questions that parents and adults field from students as they start their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the application required to determine eligibility for most financial aid programs that help cover college costs, ranging from student loans to Cal Grants, the state program in California that awards over $2 billion annually to help students afford college. Students in California must complete their entire FAFSA, running more than 100 questions long, before the Cal Grant deadline (March 2) to claim any state-based assistance for which they are eligible. Unfortunately, data on who does not complete the FAFSA depicts a grim reality: many of the students that stand to most benefit from college leave their money on the table, potentially incurring greater costs themselves or even worse –  not enrolling in college altogether due to the costs they face.

In 2016, The Campaign for College Opportunity set out to quantify the amount of Pell Grant funds left unused by California students, funds that would have otherwise helped low-income students pay for college. The results were staggering. We found that in 2014, more than 144,000 California high school graduates failed to complete a FAFSA, resulting in over $340 million going unclaimed and unused by eligible students. These are not funds that need to be won in the never-ending Congressional budget debates. These dollars are already allocated towards financial aid, but we have yet to make it enough of a priority to make sure they get to their end users – students.

Much of the problem lies in the FAFSA form itself. The FAFSA can be intimidating – it is a lengthy and complicated form, especially for young people new to tax terminology or families unfamiliar with how to pay for college. However, now that 99% of FAFSAs are submitted electronically, we can leverage technology to remove this artificial barrier from students learning about or accessing their financial aid. Recent changes made the FAFSA more user-friendly, but leave much room for improvement. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) allows applicants to import their family’s tax information directly to their FAFSA. However, the DRT was suspended in 2017 due to security concerns and has never been made available to applicants in certain tax filing situations, including those earning too little to submit an income tax return. Nearly one third of FAFSA questions must be answered by fewer than 1% of applicants; we should take a cue from TurboTax and other tax filing programs by using “skip-logic” to better match questions to the complexity of an applicant’s finances. The Department of Education must prioritize making the DRT safe, reliable, and available to all applicants, regardless of tax filing status. Investments in the FAFSA process will pay off many times over, as more students access financial aid, enroll and graduate from college, then enter the workforce to contribute more to our tax base and economy.

We can all take action to make the FAFSA a clearer pathway to financial aid, rather than an obstacle to be overcome. Congress can pass legislation to reduce the number of redundant questions asked by the FAFSA. The Higher Education Act, which sets federal policies for student aid, is currently being reviewed for reauthorization and should be updated to reflect commonsense improvements to the FAFSA. California can also do more to help our students claim every dollar for which they are eligible. Educators and community leaders should be relentless in getting out the word about deadlines and where to get help with applications, like Cash for College workshops. K-12 district and state leaders can monitor schools’ FAFSA completion progress in real-time using the National College Access Network’s “#FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker.” As of February 16, 2018, only 195,003 students had completed their FAFSA, just 38.1% of more than 512,000 high school seniors in California. Perhaps more concerning is that 22.4% of California high schools did not report any data, earning California the dubious ranking of 6th highest proportion of “no show” high schools not reporting any data on FAFSA completion.

Besides continuing to press Congress for a simpler FAFSA and sharing information about financial aid, California education leaders can require that high school seniors complete a FAFSA or Dream Act application before graduating to make sure students know about any available help. Paying for college should not be a barrier to higher education and the FAFSA should not be a barrier to financial aid.


To stay informed about proposed changes to the FAFSA in the Higher Education Act reautorization debate or news in California higher education, sign up for the Campaign for College Opportunity’s newsletter here.

By Jake Brymner, State & Federal Policy Manager

And the Higher Education Grammy Goes to…

Champions SealSecretary of State Alex Padilla called the Campaign for College Opportunity’s Champions of Higher Education award “the equivalent of a Grammy, the equivalent of an Oscar, and maybe even the equivalent of a World Series ring all rolled into one.”

While the Recording Academy hands out Grammys for Best New Artist, Album of the Year and Song of the Year, we awarded Champions of Higher Education awards for Excellence in Transfer, our higher education version of the Grammys, as Secretary Padilla calls it.

Specifically, these “Grammys” are awarded to California Community Colleges and California State Universities (CSU) that have supported students through the Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT), a streamlined transfer pathway that offers guaranteed admission with junior standing at the CSU. The goal of the Associate Degree for Transfer pathway is to increase the number of students transferring to 4-year universities by streamlining the transfer process. Our research shows that 48% of students with an ADT graduate from the California State University within two years with their bachelor’s degree compared to only 27% of traditional transfer students. And, since its inception in 2010, more than 69,000 students have earned an Associate Degree for Transfer.

The California Community Colleges and California State Universities that received the awards produced the largest number of students earning Associate Degrees for Transfer and have demonstrated significant growth in students earning the degree year over year.

Here are the California Community College Grammy categories and winners: Read More

Our Fight Songs: A Playlist for Social Justice Champions

Music was a valuable tool in the Civil Rights Movement, motivating activists during long marches and providing emotional strength in the face of violence. Negro spirituals and soulful chants like “We Shall Overcome” and “Eyes on the Prize” were the soundtrack that encouraged activists to continue their fight for equality and justice.

Our Campaign for College Opportunity team also uses music for inspiration as we push for cultural and institutional changes to make college more accessible to all students. Unlike the civil rights activists we admire, we don’t have original compositions or impressive vocal skills, but we use the power of song to keep us pressing on in our fight for college access for all students.

In this current political climate, where students’ opportunity to attend and excel in college may be threatened by tax legislation, a lack of federal movement to protect and support undocumented students, and ill-informed narratives that attempt to devalue the opportunities a higher education provides, we often turn to music to keep us going through challenging obstacles.

Read More

California Should Do More to Support “Non-Traditional” Low-Income Students


By Abigail K. Bates, Senior Research Analyst at the Campaign for College Opportunity

Who comes to mind when you picture a college student?

Perhaps you think of a young adult living in a dorm on campus, taking a full load of classes, and splitting their time between studies and the activities of college social life.

While this typical image is true for many college students, it leaves out a large population of adult students who might commute to campus, live at home with their children, and juggle multiple jobs, classes, and family life. They might also attend more than one college to get the classes that fit into their demanding schedules. These students, deemed “non-traditional,” are often adults returning to school after being out of the classroom for several years.

Many students like these struggle financially, as they must sometimes make the difficult decision of deciding between paying bills to support a family and paying school fees.

Read More

We Could Not Have Done It Without You

Thank you Index Cards

By Stacey Holderbach, Development & Administrative Manager at the Campaign for College Opportunity

In this season of thanks, we would like to share our deep gratitude to the foundations, corporations, organizations, and individuals who make our work possible. Their commitment and investment in the Campaign for College Opportunity allows us to ensure that the promise of a college education is available to this generation and future generations of California students.

Our supporters have many worthy causes to which they can invest, but year after year, they affirm their commitment to college access, completion, affordability and racial equity by investing in us.

Thanks to our funders’ investments, this year we were able to:

  • Share compelling student stories through our reports and presentations
  • Issue our first-ever California Higher Education Report Card, which measures California’s progress toward producing enough college graduates to meet our state’s economic needs by 2025
  • Publish The Transfer Maze: The High Cost to Students and the State, which highlights the critical role transfer plays in producing college graduates and providing economic opportunity, as well as the barriers students who wish to transfer still face in completing their education goals
  • Establish a coalition of leaders from higher education, philanthropy, and community organizations, and state and local policymakers to develop a proactive effort to protect California’s DACA and undocumented students
  • Advocate for funding and policies that accelerate students toward college completion by improving placement, transfer, and affordability.
  • Honor the exemplary leadership of the people and institutions crucial to ensuring student success, and highlighting these institutions as examples for best practices to inspire other colleges and universities

Read More

All Students Should Have Access to Alternative Math Pathways

By Jacquelyn Lowe, recent graduate of Humboldt State University and a former Statway student at Pierce College in Los Angeles.
Republished from the Los Angeles Daily News

As someone whose college dreams were almost derailed by remedial math courses, I was thrilled to learn that the California State University system will no longer require intermediate algebra as a remedial pre-requisite for general education courses.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and throughout high school and college, I excelled in speech, debate, and all of my English classes. But math was my greatest obstacle.

When I enrolled at Pierce College, I didn’t pass the intermediate algebra placement test and learned I would have to take three semesters of remedial math before I could take a course that would transfer to CSU. After years of struggle, the idea of redoing high school math for a year and a half seemed like a deal breaker. I began telling myself I didn’t need a college education. After all, I grew up in a working-class family, already had a job in sales, and was raised by a single mother who made a living without a formal education.

That’s when my counselor told me about a program at Pierce called Statway. Developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Statway allowed me to bypass those three semesters and begin directly in college-level statistics, with remediation of necessary math skills built in… read more at the Los Angeles Daily News.

Beyond Affirmative Action

Reposted: August 2, 2017 (Previously posted May 1, 2014 | Written by: Michele Siqueiros, President, The Campaign for College Opportunity)

Race is in the news. Whether it’s State Senator Hernandez’ proposal (SCA-5) to have California voters repeal the ban on Affirmative Action in California higher education, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the State of Michigan’s repeal of Affirmative Action in college admissions, or the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who earned a lifetime ban and fine from the NBA for his disparaging remarks, the issue of race is front and center.
Read More

Changing the Dialogue: How We Can Push Low-Income, Top Performing Students into Competitive Colleges

(Ariana and I posing with her University of California, Irvine acceptance letter-a proud and exciting moment for both of us!)

(Ariana and I posing with her University of California, Irvine acceptance letter–a proud and exciting moment for both of us!)

By: Alex Serna, Program Director, Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano

It was as if we were negotiating a nuclear treaty and for the last 4 years she worked assiduously to someday realize her dreams of becoming the first in her family to attend college. Then, that someday arrived. We sat and discussed her college list. The air was still as the crisp, cool fall ambient enveloped our conversation leading to a moment that became the turning point in her life. For many high-achieving, low-income students “undermatch” is a real phenomenon, one that Brookings defines as, “students attending less challenging colleges than their academic credentials would allow them to.” The New York Times credits this trend with widening economic inequality and low levels of mobility. These academically promising students, “wind up in community college or mediocre four-year schools”, with less financial, academic and social support leading to high rates of attrition (NPR). But, “undermatch” can either be realized or be overcome with dialogue. However, let me be clear; we are not talking about simple dialogue-but a relentless, aspirational dialogue focused on acknowledging the student’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.  Read More

A Cinderella Story for the Modern Girl

jessie and mom graduation

By: Jessie Ryan, Executive Vice President, Campaign for College Opportunity

In honor of Mother’s Day, Executive Vice President, Jessie Ryan, shares the instrumental role her mother played in the work that she does today.

Last August, after courageously waging a two-year battle with cancer, my Mother passed away.  She was my person.  My source of unconditional love, laughter, and encouragement.  A larger than life personality, that despite a life characterized by hardship was responsible for shaping me into the purpose-driven woman I am today. Read More

Why the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) Matters

tuffy & Linda
By: Linda Vasquez, Regional Affairs Director

The promise of higher education accessibility is deeply tied to the availability of financial aid programs for those with the highest need. That’s why federal aid that supports American students across the nation is so important. Unfortunately, in President Trump’s proposed budget, a critical program, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), is at risk of being eliminated.

There is endless amount of research that I could cite for you that demonstrate how a grant such as the FSEOG can serve as a critical tool to increasing college access, especially among underrepresented and underserved students, but the most powerful proof will come straight from a student who benefited from it. Read More