Students who do not file the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA), or who file after the priority application deadline, are at risk of not receiving grant aid that could help them persist and graduate from college. This study used data from the beginning postsecondary student study (BPS:04/06) to examine FAFSA filing behavior (i.e. early, late, did not file) among students attending community colleges, public 4-year, and private non-profit 4-year institutions. Results indicate that later filers, on average, receive less total state and institutional grant aid compared to students who filed earlier. Attending college part-time and delaying enrollment into college after high school were strongly associated with not filing a FAFSA and filing late. There were notable differences in FAFSA filing across institutional sectors as a function of students’ gender, race/ethnicity, income status, high school context, and pre-college academic experiences. These findings serve as the basis for recommendations aimed at increasing the rates of early FAFSA filing among students at the greatest risk of leaving money on the table.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
All unweighted n’s reported in this study are rounded to the nearest ten per NCES data security guidelines.
Adelman, C. (2005). Moving into town—and moving on: The community college in the lives of traditional-age students. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Adelman, C. (2006). The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
American Association of Community Colleges. (2012, April). Reclaiming the American Dream: A report from the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. Washington, DC: Author.
Asher, L. (2007). Going to the source: A practical way to simplify the FAFSA. Oakland: Institute for College Access & Success.
Becker, G. S. (1997). Human capital: A theoretical and empirical analysis, with special reference to education. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Bettinger, E., Long, B.T., Oreopoulos, P., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2009). The role of simplification and information in college decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment. NBER Working Papers, No. 15361. National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
Cellini, S. R. (2008). Causal inference and omitted variable bias in financial aid research: Assessing solutions. The Review of Higher Education, 31(3), 329–354.
Chen, R. (2008). Financial aid and student dropout in higher education: A heterogeneous research approach. Higher Education, 23, 209–239.
Christou, C., & Haliassos, M. (2006). How do students finance human capital accumulation? The choice between borrowing and work. British Journal of Sociology in Education, 24, 621–636.
College Board. (2003). Trends in college pricing 2003. Washington, DC: College Board.
College Board Advocacy and Policy Center. (2010). The financial aid challenge: Successful practices that address the underutilization of financial aid in community colleges. Washington, DC: College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.
DesJardins, S. L. (2001). A comment on interpreting odds-ratios when logistic regression coefficients are negative. AIR Professional File, 81.
DesJardins, S. L., & Toutkoushian, R. K. (2005). Are students really rational? The development of rational thought and its application to student choice. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. 20, pp. 191–240). New York: Springer.
Dowd, A. C., & Duggan, M. B. (2001). Computing variances from data with complex sampling designs: A comparison of Stata and SPSS. In North American Stata Users’ Group Meetings 2001 (No. 3.1). Stata Users Group.
Duan-Barnett, N., & Mabry, B. (2012). Integrating tax preparation with FAFSA completion: Three case models. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 42(3), 25–45.
Dynarski, S., & Scott-Clayton, J. (2006). The cost of complexity in federal student aid: Lessons from optimal tax theory and behavioral economics. KSG Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP06-013 and NBER Working Paper 12227.
Dynarski, S. & Scott-Clayton, J. (2007). College grants on a postcard: A proposal for simple and predictable federal student aid. The Brookings Institution. Policy Brief No. 2007-01. Washington, DC.
Dynarski, S., & Scott-Clayton, J. E. (2008a). Complexity and targeting in federal student aid: A quantitative analysis. HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP08-005 and NBER Working Papers 13801.
Dynarski, S. M., & Scott-Clayton, J. E. (2008b). Complexity and targeting in federal student aid: A quantitative analysis. In NBER/tax policy & the economy (Vol. 22, pp. 109–150). University Of Chicago Press.
Dynarski, S., & Wiederspan, M. (2012). Student aid simplification: Looking back and looking ahead. National Tax Journal, 65(1), 211–234.
Feeney, M., & Heroff, J. (2013). Barriers to need-based financial aid: Predictors of timely FAFSA completion among low-income students. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 43(2), 65–85.
Gansemer-Topf, A., & Schuh, J. (2005). Institutional grants: Investigating student retention and graduation. Journal of Student Aid, 35(3), 5–20.
Gross, J. P., Hossler, D., & Ziskin, M. (2007). Institutional aid and student persistence: An analysis of the effects of institutional financial aid at public 4-year institutions. Journal of Student Aid, 37(1), 28–39.
Hosmer, D. W., & Lemeshow, S. (2000). Applied logistic regression. New York: Wiley.
Hossler, D., Schmit, J., & Vesper, N. (1999). Going to college: How social, economic, and educational factors influence the decisions students make. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Hurtado, S., Inkelsa, K. K., Briggs, C., & Rhee, B. S. (1997). Differences in college access and choice among different racial/ethnic groups. Research in Higher Education, 38(1), 43–75.
Kane, T. J., & Avery, C. (2004). Student perceptions of college opportunities: The Boston COACH Program. In Caroline Hoxby (Ed.), College decisions: The new economics of choosing, attending and completing college. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kantrowitz, M. (2009). Analysis of why some students do not apply for financial aid. Student Aid Policy Analysis. Retrieved on April 20, 2011 from http://www.finaid.org/educators/studentaidpolicy.phtml.
Kantrowitz, M. (2011). Reasons why students do not file the FAFSA. Student Aid Policy Analysis. Retrieved on April 20, 2011 from http://www.finaid.org/educators/studentaidpolicy.phtml.
King, J. E. (2004). Missed opportunities: Students who do not apply for financial aid. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, Center for Policy Analysis.
King, J. E. (2006). Missed opportunities revisited: New information on students who do not apply for financial aid. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, Center for Policy Analysis.
LaManque, A. (2009). Factors associated with delayed submission of the free application for federal financial aid. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 17, 6–12.
Long, J. S. (1997). Regression models for categorical and limited dependent variables (Vol. 7). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.
Manski, C. F., & Wise, D. A. (1983). College choice in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
McDonough, P. M. (1997). Choosing colleges: How social class and schools structure opportunity. Albany: State University of New York Press.
McDonough, P. M., & Calderone, S. (2006). The meaning of money: Perceptual differences between college counselors and low-income families about college costs and financial aid. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(12), 1703–1718.
McKinney, L., & Novak, H. (2013). The relationship between FAFSA filing and persistence among first-year community college students. Community College Review, 41(1), 63–85.
McKinney, L., & Roberts, T. (2012). The role of community college financial aid counselors in helping students understand and utilize financial aid. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 36, 761–774.
McKinney, L., Roberts, T., & Shefman, P. (2013). Financial aid counselors’ perspectives and experiences of loan borrowing among community college students. Journal of Student Financial Aid.
Mendoza, P., Mendez, J., & Malcolm, Z. (2009). Financial aid and persistence in community colleges: Assessing the effectiveness of federal and state financial aid programs in Oklahoma. Community College Review, 37, 112–135.
Mullin, C. M. (2013). An analysis of the reimagining aid design and delivery (RADD) white papers. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.
National Economic Council (2009). Simplifying student aid: The case for an easier, faster, and more accurate FAFSA. Executive Office of the President, Council of Economic Advisors. Retrieved online on January 14, 2013 from http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/FAFSA_Report.pdf.
Novak, H., & McKinney, L. (2011). The consequences of leaving money on the table: Examining persistence among students who do not file a FAFSA. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 41(3), 5–23.
Perna, L. W. (2006a). Studying college access and choice: A proposed conceptual model. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (Vol. 21, pp. 99–157). New York: Springer.
Perna, L. W. (2006b). Understanding the relationship between information about college costs and financial aid and students’ college-related behaviors. American Behavioral Scientist, 49, 1620–1635.
Perna, L. W. (2008). Understanding high school students’ willingness to borrow to pay college prices. Research in Higher Education, 49, 589–606.
Perna, L. W. (2010). Understanding the working college student: New research and its implications for policy and practice. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.
Perna, L. W., & Titus, M. (2005). The relationship between parental involvement as social capital and college enrollment: An examination of racial/ethnic group differences. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(5), 485–518.
Plank, S. B., & Jordan, W. J. (2001). Effects of information, guidance, and actions on postsecondary destinations: A study of talent loss. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 947–979.
Somers, P., Cofer, J., & Vander Putten, J. (2001). The early bird goes to college: The link between early college aspirations and postsecondary matriculation. Journal of College Student Development, 43(1), 93–97.
St. John, E. P., Musoba, G. D., & Simmons, A. B. (2003). Keeping the promise: The impact of Indiana’s twenty-first century scholars program. Review of Higher Education, 27(1), 103–123.
St. John, E. P., & Paulsen, M. B. (2001). The finance of higher education: Implications for theory, research, policy, and practice. In M. B. Paulsen & J. Smart (Eds.), The finance of higher education: Theory, research, policy, and practice (pp. 545–568). New York: Agathon Press.
Stage, F. K., & Hossler, D. (1989). Differences in family on college attendance plans for male and female ninth graders. Research in Higher Education, 30(3), 301–315.
Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (1997). A social capital framework for understanding the socialization of racial Minority children and youths. Harvard Education Review, 67(1), 1–40.
Thomas, S. L., & Heck, R. H. (2001). Analysis of large-scale secondary data in higher education research: Potential perils associated with complex sampling designs. Research in Higher Education, 42(5), 517–540.
Tierney, W. G., & Venegas, K. M. (2006). Fictive kin and social capital: The role of peer groups in applying and paying for college. The American Behavioral Scientist, 49(12), 1687–1702.
Vargas, J. H. (2004). College knowledge: Addressing information barriers to college. Boston, MA: The Education Resources Institute (TERI).
Walpole, M. (2003). Socioeconomic status and college: How SES affects college experiences and outcomes. The Review of Higher Education, 27(1), 45–73.
Ziskin, M., Fischer, M. A., Torres, V., Pellicciotti, B., & Player-Sanders, J. (2014). Working students’ perceptions of paying for college: Understanding the connections between financial aid and work. The Review of Higher Education, 37(4), 429–467.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2013 Association for Institutional Research (AIR) Forum in Long Beach, California. The authors thank Tom Biedscheid, Catherine L. Horn, Christopher M. Mullin, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and feedback on previous drafts.
About this article
Cite this article
McKinney, L., Novak, H. FAFSA Filing Among First-Year College Students: Who Files on Time, Who Doesn’t, and Why Does it Matter?. Res High Educ 56, 1–28 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-014-9340-0
- Free application for federal student aid (FAFSA)
- Student financial aid
- State grant aid
- Institutional grant aid
- Community colleges
- Public 4-year colleges
- Private 4-year colleges