Fast-Forward on FAFSA

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a FAFSA Workshop at T.C. Williams High School with First Lady Michelle Obama, Alexandria, VA
(Note: Speaker deviated in spots from his prepared remarks)


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Thank you for that kind introduction, Principal Maxey. Today, is a great day here at T.C. Williams High School for two reasons.

First, we’re here to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA form. Note that word “free.”

You can qualify for tens of thousands of dollars of federal aid to attend college and pursue your dream of earning a degree just by filling out a FAFSA at no cost to yourself!

The federal government provides about $150 billion a year altogether in student aid, much of it in Pell Grant scholarships for low-income students. And the FAFSA is the only form you need to complete to make yourself eligible for federal student aid like Pell Grants and federal student loans.

The second reason for celebrating today is that our extraordinary First Lady, Michelle Obama, is going to join us in a few minutes at this FAFSA Workshop, where we will have students and parents completing the FAFSA form in real time.

I am so excited that she is joining us. Making college affordable, and simplifying the financial aid process, are not abstract issues for the First Lady or for President Obama. Financial aid and scholarships helped both of them to earn their degrees—and to fulfill their dreams. They are who they are, because they had a chance to go to college.

They are passionate in their belief that America must provide equal opportunity to all its citizens. And today, each of the students here who complete their FAFSA will be taking a step toward earning their degree and increasing their chances of one day owning their own home, getting a good job, and supporting their family.

Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for every deserving student to apply for financial aid. And I am not going to kid you—for too long, applying for financial aid and securing the best aid package has been much more complicated, and much less transparent, than it should have been.

The FASFA form itself used to be a barrier to college entry. That drove me crazy. When I became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools back in 2001, the FAFSA was so complicated that you almost had to have a degree in accounting to complete it. I’m thrilled that we have been able to make it quicker and simpler to complete the FAFSA.

About 98 percent of FAFSA applicants now use the web-based version of the FAFSA, as you are going to today. The incorporation of skip-logic removed unnecessary and duplicative questions from the form.

And the addition of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool greatly simplified retrieving the financial information needed to fill out the form. Last year, over nine million students or parents used that tool. On average, students today are completing their online FAFSA applications in a little under half-an-hour. We will test that today!

Those improvements have helped propel a 33 percent increase in the number of students who have completed the FAFSA over the last five years. We received close to 22 million FAFSA applications in the 2012-2013 cycle, nearly five-and-a-half million more FAFSAs than we received just five years earlier.

And our aim is to make the process even simpler. Someday, I hope students who qualify for financial aid based on their tax return will not have to complete a FAFSA at all.

One of the great frustrations with the FAFSA has been that students often submit applications with missing signatures or items left unanswered—and then mistakenly assume their application has been accepted.

High school administrators consistently discover a 20 to 30 percentage point gap between the actual completion rates of FASFA and what students report. In Virginia last year, 2,000 students submitted FASFA forms that were incomplete. Incomplete forms equal money left on the table—and dreams of college dashed. We must do better.

When I was in Chicago, we launched a FAFSA completion initiative that enabled the state education agency for the first time to share data on whether students had successfully filed a completed FAFSA with secondary school leaders and school counselors. And the FAFSA completion rate citywide went up dramatically, from 64 percent to over 80 percent.

When I came to Washington, we built on our work in Chicago and launched a similar FAFSA Completion Pilot Program in 100 school districts with more than 1,000 high schools.

The results have been terrific—hard work, focus, intervention, and transparency are going a long way to reducing incompletion rates. In San Antonio, for example, the percentage of 12th graders who filed a FAFSA rose 30 percentage points just between 2011 and 2012 alone—from 48 percent to 78 percent.

And tracking FAFSA completion data has a big impact not just in completing the FAFSA but on actually enrolling in college. In the Albuquerque Public Schools, both the rate of FAFSA completion and college enrollment was about 12 points higher for students in the FAFSA Completion Pilot Program than for students not covered by the program.

We’re so encouraged by these results that we’re planning to take the FAFSA Completion Pilot Program nationwide soon.

So I want to encourage everyone here today, not just to persist and make sure you have completed the FAFSA form, but to tell your friends they must fill out the FAFSA as well!

It’s deeply troubling to me that so many academically-qualified high school graduates don’t even attempt to apply to college because they think they simply can’t afford it—even though they know how valuable college is. We have to reach more high school students and their parents, earlier. Our communities and our country need their talents!

A survey by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that over two-thirds of students who didn’t go to college believed that—and I quote—“A college education is necessary for me to have the things that I want, like a car and a comfortable home.”

Yet only 12 percent—about one in eight—of those academically-qualified, non-college going students actually applied for financial aid—88 percent did not.

Nationwide, more than one million high school seniors each year don’t fill out the FAFSA form, most of whom would be eligible for Pell grants. That is a tragic loss of academic opportunity and human potential.

It’s ultimately up to every one of our students here today to make the journey to college. Yet no one makes that journey entirely alone—I know I didn’t. Along the way, everyone gets help at some point from a caring adult—whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a grandmother, a coach, or a tutor.

I want to give a special shout-out today to the school counselors at T.C. Williams. Too often, our school counselors are overworked and underappreciated.

Our school counselors want to own the turf when it comes to counseling kids for colleges and careers. But impossible caseloads force too many guidance counselors to spend their days on non-guidance tasks, like being hallway monitors and filling in as substitute teachers.

Here at T.C. Williams, the school leadership--with help from a federal school improvement grant—is breaking that dysfunctional pattern. T.C. Williams has wisely invested in making sure counselors are providing college and career guidance.

When the school’s improvement grant ended in 2013, T.C. Williams decided to retain 11 school counselors originally supported by the federal grant. The school now has one of the better counselor-to-student ratios in the country.

The number of completed FAFSAs this year at T.C. Williams is way up—as of mid-January, 129 seniors had completed the FAFSA this year, compared to 70 at this point last year.

Many colleges and universities have a FAFSA deadline of February 15, so for many seniors at T.C. Williams, the deadline for completing the FAFSA is only 10 days away. Do not procrastinate--make sure to complete your FASFA form in time!

So, to wrap it up, I think T.C. Williams is providing a great model for student counseling that many other high schools can learn from.

For every student here, financial planning is part of their college and career plan. On Tuesday evenings, the school hosts FAFSA sessions for students and parents. On Saturdays, the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria works closely with T.C. Williams students to provide both financial information and need-based aid.

Last year, the Scholarship Fund generously awarded $900,000 in scholarship aid to T.C. Williams’ graduates. That is not a gift—it’s an investment in you, in your future.

The Scholarship Fund of Alexandria also works with the Virginia College Advising Corps to place AmeriCorps members at high schools throughout the state to serve alongside counselors. And I understand that AmeriCorps member Margaret Montague is here today.

Margaret is providing direct one-on-one college advising and financial aid planning to T.C. Williams students, including FAFSA support and FAFSA workshops for parents and students. Could the counselors and AmeriCorps members stand to be recognized? I am a huge fan of the AmeriCorps program!

So with that, I’m going to join you in this workshop. I look forward to seeing you complete your FAFSA--and taking the next step on your journey to a college degree!