The need for Universal FAFSA urged by students, policymakers, advocates in New York State

Feb 29, 2024 | Blog

Completing the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) and other state aid forms can open doors to more postsecondary opportunities by making college more accessible and affordable for low-income backgrounds, immigrants, and first-generation students.

Students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to enroll in college immediately after graduation. Yet by the end of June 2023, over 40% of high school seniors across New York State did not complete the FAFSA, meaning millions of dollars in financial aid — including an estimated $226 million in Pell Grants — were left behind. To that end, FAFSA completion rates in New York State highlight an equity gap: Completion rates are higher in NY public high schools with the smallest shares of students from low-income backgrounds compared to schools with the largest shares of students from low-income backgrounds.

While there can be many factors to why a student may or may not complete the FAFSA, T’Kai Harvey, CUNY Hunter College student, and uAspire Policy Fellowship alum breaks down her experience: “Truthfully, I never planned to attend college because I knew my mother couldn’t afford it and I was unaware of my financial aid options. It sounds silly to say now, but I thought my only way to attend college was through student loans for scholarships directly granted from the college or university I applied to.”

T’Kai is one of many speakers who joined members of the legislature, state and college leaders, student-serving organizations, and researchers at a Universal FAFSA briefing in New York City, hosted in partnership with The Education Trust–New York, uAspire, and Young Invincibles. During the event, speakers championed the need for a Universal FAFSA policy in New York State, highlighted the successes of other states, and discussed the student experience with the financial aid process.

Universal FAFSA completion policies require that all high school seniors complete the application and receive support. Ideally, these policies also include opt-outs for students. Many states that have implemented such policies have seen success — including California,  which saw an 11.1% increase in FAFSA completion in 2022-2023 during its first year of implementation.

This legislative session a Universal FAFSA bill, sponsored by New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes, is up for consideration. This bill would require high school seniors to receive supporting in completing the FAFSA, the New York Dream Act, or a waiver.

Combined with changes to the FAFSA, known as the Better FAFSA — which includes a simpler form and an increase in maximum Pell Grant awards for an estimated additional 75,000 more New York students — adopting Universal FAFSA legislation could support thousands more students in receiving every dollar of financial aid for which they qualify.

Students who spoke at the event were in agreement that a Universal FAFSA policy could have helped them and their peers. “All high school seniors should be able to access postsecondary education, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” said Harvey at the briefing. “Universal FAFSA can ensure students’ economic mobility.”

Nevertheless, it must be recognized that the rollout of the Better FAFSA has been a cause for concern for students this year. Ed Trust–NY is encouraged by the Department of Education’s efforts to waive requirements and provide additional support to colleges to help speed up this process, but more must be done to ensure there are timely aid packages and no more issues with Better FAFSA in the coming years — so that should Universal FAFSA become law in New York State, these combined supports and resources for students can set them on the path to postsecondary opportunities and a brighter future.

Learn more about Universal FAFSA policies in our informational resource here.