High school graduates who did not complete an application for federal financial aid missed their chance to get a share of $ 2.6 billion in free money for the university, according to NerdWallet’s annual analysis of federal financial aid data.

The money was not claimed by 661,000 Class of 2018 members who were eligible for a Federal Pell Grant but did not complete the Free Federal Student Aid Application, or FAFSA. The app is essential for getting money for college, including work-study, federal loans, and state and school aid.

The average Pell grant was $ 3,908 for the 2018-2019 school year, NerdWallet found. The maximum allowable compensation for the year was $ 6,095.

Who gets a Pell scholarship

Pell Grants are awarded to students from low-income families. The amount awarded is based on the cost of attending a student’s school and information provided by the FAFSA, including a family’s financial needs. Students can receive a Pell Scholarship for a maximum of 12 semesters, or approximately six years, but they must submit an application each year to qualify.

The total amount of the Pell Scholarship awarded to college students for 2018-2019 was $ 27.5 billion, which was distributed to over 7 million students.

Of 2018 graduates, more than half were eligible for a Pell Grant, according to federal financial aid data from the Florida College Access Network.

States where students compete for funds

Tennessee and Louisiana are tied for the lowest percentage (17%) of high school graduates who have not completed their FAFSA, according to NerdWallet analysis. Both states are taking steps to ensure more students complete their FAFSA.

In Tennessee, the state higher education commission annually holds “FAFSA Frenzy” events to improve the rate of completed applications, which are needed for the state’s free community college program called Tennessee Promise.

Louisiana’s National Student Aid Office hosts FAFSA completion and scoring events, as well as a competition between schools to encourage the end of applications. The state also requires high school students to complete an application for financial aid or sign a waiver in order to graduate.

States where students miss out

But state completion efforts often fall short of other deeply rooted factors.

More than half of high school graduates in Utah (55%) and Alaska (52%) did not complete the 2018-19 application. Both states are running awareness campaigns for completion, but the unique makeup of their populations is hampering broader efforts, officials said.

Many Utah graduates are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and serve two-year religious missions before applying to college or financial aid. About two-thirds of Utah’s students are Mormons and about half go on a mission, says David Buhler, commissioner of Utah’s higher education system.

The commission holds more than 100 open houses for completion of FAFSA statewide and encourages application for financial assistance before leaving on a mission – to facilitate the renewal process upon their return – but this did not the impact expected by those responsible.

“Their goal is to prepare for a mission – young men in particular – and college is ‘something I’ll deal with later,’” says Buhler. “It is against human nature to expect a deceased teenager to do something like this before having to do it. But we encourage it. “

In Alaska, Rebekah Matrosova, director of outreach and early awareness for the Alaska Commission on Post-Secondary Education, says data may be underreported due to the number of small rural schools statewide. .

However, Matrosova also says that College Goal Alaska, the state’s FAFSA completion awareness initiative, is trying to reach as many of these communities as possible.

“A lot of it comes down to the awareness of not being there, or the misconception that the FAFSA is only for certain people from certain backgrounds when it is something that everyone can benefit from.” , says Matrosova.

Why students don’t apply

Of all high school graduates, 37% did not complete the FAFSA, according to NerdWallet analysis. Why?

The biggest misconception is that families think they won’t get any financial help, says student loan expert Kevin Fudge. In reality, all families are eligible for federal student loans and most will qualify for some other type of assistance.

Parents might also be reluctant to share their financial information for privacy reasons, says Fudge, director of consumer advocacy and ombudsperson for American Student Assistance, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping students achieve their goals. in education and career.

Other students can start FAFSA, but don’t complete it or make a mistake that prevents them from receiving help. For example, in Alabama, students submitted 33,266 applications, but 30,379 were approved.

How to make sure you don’t miss out

To complete the FAFSA, go to the Federal Student Aid website at Studentaid.ed.gov. Additionally, this year the Federal Student Aid Office launched a new mobile app, myStudentAid, to encourage higher completion rates. However, only new students can use it for the 2019-2020 school year.