A higher percentage of high school seniors from Tennessee have filled out their federal financial aid forms for college than from any other state.
It's a familiar refrain for state higher education officials: Tennessee has led the nation ever since Tennessee Promise went into effect in 2015, requiring students to fill out the financial aid form to stay eligible for free community or technical college. But the attention paid to filing rates — just one step in a long process of getting students into college — shows its importance as an indicator of how many students will end up continuing their education.
This form called the FAFSA is required for any government-funded scholarship, loan or work-study program in college. So if a student doesn't fill out a FAFSA, it's far less likely they'll attend college at all, says Angela Boatman, a higher education policy professor at Vanderbilt University.
Yet the form is notoriously laborious: It requires extensive tax information from a student's family, and the questions can be so particular that even Boatman has had trouble helping students.
"I study this. I really know what is in the FAFSA. It's really tricky," she says. "They'll ask me questions where I'll have to go read online about it...I even know where to get this information, and I don't know how to answer that."
Boatman says higher ed experts across the country are watching Tennessee closely — trying to glean best practices for getting more students over these hurdles and into college.
The state has taken a more "multi-pronged approach" than most, Boatman says. For example, some schools have state-funded advisers who can give one-on-one FAFSA guidance. State higher education officials now organize "FAFSA Frenzy" days, in which they "descend upon high schools and help whatever students still have to file the FAFSA," says Emily House, the Tennessee Higher Education Commissioner's lead researcher. And the state sends out weekly emails to principals, informing them of how their FAFSA completion rate compares to other schools,
"To some extent, it inspires a spirit of competition," House says. "All of that intentionality and strategy does bear fruit."
As of the end of January, the fruit is this: 75.2 percent of high school seniors have filed their FAFSA, at least 20 points more than any other state in the country (the number two state is neighboring Kentucky).
This seems like a marked increase over last year, although House points out the U.S. Department of Education has changed the way it compiles these stats. This year, 19-year-old high school seniors are now included, which has boosted everyone's rate, she says.
Still, Boatman says it's exciting to her that three out of four seniors in Tennessee filed their FAFSA. "I think that number is a huge deal," she says. "It doesn't necessarily mean that all of those students will attend college, but it is a critical step in getting there."
Editor's note, Jan. 12: Tennessee's calculations for FAFSA completion differs slightly from other organizations'. For example, the National College Access Network marked Tennessee's progress at about 70 percent, rather than 75 percent, because it included only finalized FAFSAs and used a different number of high school seniors as the denominator.