affordability 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

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

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Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives voted by a 227-205 margin to pass H.R. 1, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” authored by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), which impacts key tax provisions that make college more accessible and affordable. At a time when states like California face major shortfalls of college-educated workers, this bill would undermine our ability to prepare students for a 21st-century economy. California currently faces a projected shortfall of 1.7 million college credentials needed to meet workforce demands by 2025. While there are many means through which we can better utilize federal tax policy to support college completion, the House’s tax bill is likely to make higher education more expensive and further out of reach for many hard-working students and their families.

Three ways in which the House “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” does not serve the interest of California or its students:

  • In streamlining the three existing higher education tax credits into the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the House’s tax proposal would simultaneously eliminate $17.5 billion in taxpayer support for higher education. While consolidating the currently available education tax benefits could better support and target students in need, the House bill does neither. Any taxpayer investment on higher education should be preserved within programs that support college access and affordability, rather than be redirected towards other uses.
  • Elimination of the state and local tax deduction on federal income taxes would make less revenue available for California and further contribute to the budgetary pressures that have led to declining state funding for the UC and CSU. Federal tax policy should not make it more difficult for states to support higher education and jeopardize our ability to enroll more students. Ten years since the onset of the Great Recession and despite recent reinvestment, we have still not yet reached 2008 levels of state funding for the California State University and University of California. Insufficient state support for public higher education has led to reduced capacity and increasing selectivity while we graduate record numbers of college-eligible high school students, as well as higher tuition rates for those that are admitted. Read more.

Fall 2017 Newsletter

The political climate in our nation is troubling, and in many ways, our students are at the epicenter of these turbulent times. Many undocumented students face uncertainty about their futures, and counselors are reporting higher rates of emotional stress among students. Protests continue to emerge on college campuses across the country as we still find ourselves grappling with deeply embedded prejudice and racism.
But as I saw my first-born off to his last year of high school earlier this month, I was reminded of the obligation we have to move forward and find solutions to our most pressing issues. It is with this optimism that I share encouraging and hopeful work on the horizon.

First, promising legislation we’ve sponsored, Assembly Bill 705 (Irwin), has made its way to the Governor’s desk! AB 705 ensures more students have access to college-level courses when they start community college by requiring colleges to use high school transcripts as a factor in determining course placement for college-level math and English. Transforming the way our colleges do placement can be the single greatest lever to improve the success of community college students, and we’re on the verge of history!

 Read the full newsletter here.

New report: Community college isn’t a cheaper route to a university

California Political Review

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As U.S. student loan debt reaches trillions, Millennials share burden with Baby Boomers

ABC 10



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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

A Gift for all of California’s Students


By: Aileen Zhong, Policy & Programs Associate

Every year we are faced with a difficult task, to find the perfect gift for our students during the holiday season. And while you might wonder whether the student in your life really needs that extra pair of shoes or the latest iPhone you won’t have to wonder whether a gift from our list is necessary. This season the Campaign for College Opportunity wants to urge you to consider giving your student something that they, their peers and all California students could benefit from for years to come. Give your support to  improving access and completion to our state’s higher education system by getting involved with the Campaign in 2017 or by making a donation today!

In just a few short years, our state will experience a huge shortage of educated workers needed to meet California’s workforce demands. Access to our public colleges and universities has been constrained, selectivity has increased, and all the while the value of a college degree is more important than ever. To address these issues, we propose six ways you can get involved and give California students the gift of equal opportunity! Our list may not fit in a box, but it’s what our students need and deserve – so let’s get to work!  Read More