More than 70 percent of Tennessee’s high school seniors applied to get federal aid for college during the last school year, a rate higher than any other state in the country, according to data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
This marks the second straight year the state has led the nation in completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to the commission’s analysis of federal data.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 70.3 percent of 2015-16 high school seniors in Tennessee filed a FAFSA, the commission announced Thursday in a joint statement with Gov. Bill Haslam. That’s a slight uptick from the 69.5 percent rate for 2014-15 seniors.
Tennessee has regularly seen high FAFSA completion rates because the Hope lottery scholarship requires students to file for federal aid. Experts have tied the continued growth of those numbers with the rollout of Haslam’s Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which requires students to file a FAFSA in order to attend a community or technical college tuition-free.
Haslam said Tennessee’s two years as a FAFSA leader suggested Tennessee Promise and his administration’s other efforts to boost college-going have been successful.
“More and more Tennessee students know that college isn’t only an option for them, it’s an expectation,” Haslam said in a statement. “We have a long way to go, but these FAFSA numbers, combined with a 25 percent increase in first-time freshmen enrollment in community colleges and a 20 percent increase at (technical colleges), reflect a growing college-going culture in Tennessee.”
The FAFSA isn’t the only step toward college enrollment, but it can be a critical one for students who rely on scholarships or grants to make tuition affordable.
Angela Boatman, a Vanderbilt professor and expert on college access and affordability, said that research shows that when students get help filing a FAFSA, more of them go to college. Tennessee Promise has brought more attention to the filing process, and as a result high schools and colleges have hosted FAFSA workshops to help students complete the complicated paperwork.
“If this trend in FAFSA completion continues in Tennessee, I would expect to see enrollment numbers increase as well.,” Boatman said in an email.
The commission’s findings indicate New Jersey has the second highest rate of FAFSA submissions at 60.7 percent. Delaware, Massachusetts and New York rounded out the top five.