Students Leave Over $2.9 Billion in Free College Money on the Table

Loans, Student Loans
2.9B FAFSA College Money Left On Table

U.S. high school graduates left over $2.9 billion in free federal grant money on the table last academic year, according to a new analysis by NerdWallet. Their mistake? Not completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA.

Our figures show that 47% of all 2013 high school graduates didn’t complete this required first step that could’ve earned them Pell Grant money, which unlike student loans, does not need to be paid back.

In response to low FAFSA completion rates, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Education have taken action to provide greater transparency to high schools about the FAFSA and financial aid.

Jan. 1 marked the start of the 2015-2016 FAFSA season. To encourage more students to file the FAFSA, NerdWallet took a look at how much unclaimed Pell dollars were left on the table in each state in the most recent FAFSA cycle. To see the full state-by-state breakdown, click here.

Key trends and takeaways

  • Nationwide, graduating high school seniors who were Pell-eligible in 2013, but didn’t complete a FAFSA, missed out on $2,955,475,413 in potential Pell Grant aid.
  • Utah was home to the largest percentage, 40%, of Pell-eligible seniors who didn’t complete a FAFSA.
  • Over 100,000 seniors in California — about the entire population of high school graduates in New Jersey — could have qualified for Pell Grants if they filed their FAFSA. Students in the Golden State lost $396,401,205 in Pell Grant dollars.

Because aid is disbursed on a first come, first served basis, the best way for parents and graduating seniors to ensure that they don’t miss out on free federal financial aid is to fill out the FAFSA now. NerdWallet’s free FAFSA Guide can help walk you through the process step by step.

Unclaimed Pell Grant Money Across the U.S.

Move your cursor over each state to see the totals in millions left behind by 2013 high school graduates.

 

Methodology

In each state, we looked at Pell Grant-eligible graduating high school seniors who didn’t complete the FAFSA in the 2013-2014 application cycle and multiplied that number by the average amount of Pell aid disbursed to all students.

Here’s the formula we used to calculate Pell Grant money left on the table:

Number of high school graduates not completing FAFSA = number of 2013 high school graduates — number of completed FAFSA applications by June 2013.

Number of Pell-eligible high school graduates not completing FAFSA = percentage of Pell-eligible applicants * number of high school graduates not completing FAFSA.

Pell Grant money left on table = number of Pell-eligible high school graduates not completing FAFSA * average Pell Grant award.

Why we focused on Pell Grants. As the largest source of federal funds for college, Pell Grants are free money and a major part of most financial aid award packages — before work-study funds and loans are tacked on — for college students who cannot afford to pay full price.

We used the most recent data from the Department of Education to find the average Pell Grant award across all colleges and universities in each state. The maximum amount awarded in the 2013-2014 cycle was $5,645; for 2015-2016, it has increased to $5,830.

How we estimated the number of high school graduates who didn’t complete the FAFSA: Using federal data, we looked at how many high school students completed the form from January to June 2013, the final deadline for most colleges.

Then, using projected graduation data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, we took into account the total number of high school graduates in each state to find the number of graduating seniors who didn’t complete a FAFSA.

How we assessed Pell eligibility for students who didn’t complete the FAFSA: Using 2013-2014 Pell Grant-qualifying applicant data from the Florida College Access Network, we found the number of graduating seniors who could have been eligible for a Pell Grant if they filled out a FAFSA. Like the Florida College Access Network, we assumed the rate of Pell-eligible recipients is the same for students who didn’t complete the FAFSA as for students who did.

 

State High school graduates in 2013 FAFSA applications by June 2013 Pell-eligible applicants Graduates who didn’t complete FAFSA Pell-eligible graduates who didn’t complete FAFSA* Average Pell Grant in 2013-14 Total Pell Grant money left on the table*
Alabama 49,044 21,026 61.37% 28,018 17,196 $3,711.36 $63,818,993
Alaska 7,414 3,007 37.14% 4,407 1,637 $3,534.97 $5,786,337
Arizona 63,214 27,470 60.40% 35,744 21,590 $3,477.99 $75,090,887
Arkansas 28,622 16,854 59.12% 11,768 6,957 $3,723.86 $25,906,020
California 408,467 239,938 64.62% 168,529 108,903 $3,639.96 $396,401,205
Colorado 52,604 24,582 43.73% 28,022 12,253 $3,457.50 $42,364,606
Connecticut 42,205 24,613 37.11% 17,592 6,528 $3,524.18 $23,006,835
Delaware 9,515 5,579 44.64% 3,936 1,757 $3,552.88 $6,242,922
District of Columbia 4,356 2,896 74.07% 1,460 1,081 $3,704.83 $4,006,709
Florida 167,427 82,957 58.56% 84,470 49,464 $3,442.37 $170,271,918
Georgia 95,533 51,947 54.72% 43,586 23,852 $3,452.18 $82,340,928
Hawaii 13,503 7,330 50.00% 6,173 3,087 $3,620.51 $11,174,700
Idaho 17,501 8,364 56.18% 9,137 5,133 $3,869.54 $19,862,893
Illinois 149,862 86,845 49.73% 63,017 31,337 $3,514.23 $110,127,095
Indiana 68,918 40,673 49.53% 28,245 13,991 $3,652.65 $51,102,401
Iowa 33,929 19,209 41.00% 14,720 6,035 $3,725.81 $22,485,988
Kansas 32,289 16,164 46.82% 16,125 7,550 $3,558.76 $26,868,158
Kentucky 44,518 25,527 57.93% 18,991 11,002 $3,689.23 $40,589,569
Louisiana 45,216 22,720 53.06% 22,496 11,937 $3,671.92 $43,830,414
Maine 15,280 8,629 50.56% 6,651 3,363 $3,702.51 $12,451,026
Maryland 66,351 35,328 43.24% 31,023 13,413 $3,486.20 $46,760,893
Massachusetts 73,488 44,797 38.68% 28,691 11,096 $3,696.04 $41,012,390
Michigan 113,887 62,002 50.68% 51,885 26,295 $3,451.58 $90,758,241
Minnesota 60,239 33,628 37.78% 26,611 10,055 $3,479.44 $34,984,848
Mississippi 29,136 16,072 68.21% 13,064 8,911 $3,871.92 $34,501,548
Missouri 66,401 34,977 50.80% 31,424 15,963 $3,719.04 $59,366,022
Montana 9,176 4,353 50.00% 4,823 2,412 $3,803.75 $9,172,749
Nebraska 21,204 11,878 47.58% 9,326 4,437 $3,570.51 $15,843,696
Nevada 23,975 11,453 60.98% 12,522 7,635 $3,467.92 $26,478,862
New Hampshire 16,125 8,942 35.16% 7,183 2,526 $3,446.75 $8,706,119
New Jersey 107,439 60,279 40.94% 47,160 19,306 $3,650.41 $70,475,262
New Mexico 19,260 9,568 58.82% 9,692 5,701 $3,698.11 $21,083,552
New York 207,814 119,306 53.19% 88,508 47,076 $3,876.22 $182,476,065
North Carolina 93,777 47,722 57.00% 46,055 26,252 $3,615.45 $94,913,670
North Dakota 7,269 3,413 30.56% 3,856 1,178 $3,668.96 $4,322,845
Ohio 129,757 67,890 46.37% 61,867 28,687 $3,531.73 $101,314,371
Oklahoma 38,773 16,197 55.81% 22,576 12,601 $3,602.59 $45,394,636
Oregon 37,479 19,277 54.11% 18,202 9,848 $3,652.70 $35,973,381
Pennsylvania 143,614 78,742 43.53% 64,872 28,236 $3,642.14 $102,838,310
Rhode Island 11,171 6,955 47.22% 4,216 1,991 $3,800.74 $7,566,853
South Carolina 41,313 23,526 56.13% 17,787 9,983 $3,719.09 $37,128,521
South Dakota 8,664 4,541 40.43% 4,123 1,667 $3,613.37 $6,022,570
Tennessee 65,115 39,270 55.79% 25,845 14,419 $3,535.97 $50,986,742
Texas 295,443 132,132 61.39% 163,311 100,263 $3,543.63 $355,294,448
Utah 32,296 9,611 57.43% 22,685 13,027 $3,492.95 $45,502,737
Vermont 7,705 3,659 41.03% 4,046 1,660 $3,837.15 $6,369,278
Virginia 85,101 45,067 43.43% 40,034 17,388 $3,536.92 $61,498,653
Washington 67,036 32,740 46.57% 34,296 15,972 $3,639.32 $58,127,700
West Virginia 18,016 10,255 51.40% 7,761 3,989 $3,755.40 $14,981,412
Wisconsin 65,804 34,162 42.13% 31,642 13,332 $3,613.38 $48,174,744
Wyoming 5,259 2,476 38.46% 2,783 1,070 $3,470.43 $3,714,691
U.S. Total 821,041 $2,955,475,413

*Unrounded data used in calculations.

Image via iStock.