Newly-Released Data Show Stark Lack Of Financial Literacy Among High School Students

By Katy Hopkins, Communications Staff 

Despite being one year away from college, many high school juniors surveyed did not know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or if they would qualify for financial aid, according to a new report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). 

In “A National Look at the High School Counseling Office What Is It Doing and What Role Can It Play in Facilitating Students’ Paths to College?” authors Alexandria Walton Radford, Nicole Ifill, and Terry Lew examine “recently released nationally representative High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09) data from Spring 2012” to gauge high school juniors’ perceptions on college affordability and financial aid, among other topics of pertinent to high school counseling. 

That year, 62 percent of students in the spring of their junior year who planned to enroll in higher education did not know whether they would file the FAFSA – and for 44 percent of those students, it was because they didn’t know what the form is. Eleven percent said they hadn’t given it any thought yet, and 7 percent said they simply did not know if they would apply for federal aid. Another four percent said they were sure they wouldn’t apply. 

Perceptions of their own neediness may have affected students’ plans for the FAFSA, as 29 percent of juniors surveyed said they did not know if they would qualify for need-based financial aid – “a highly relevant” statistic given that the students “were only roughly a year away from selecting a postsecondary institution,” the NACAC authors write. Twenty-six percent of students already thought they wouldn’t qualify for need-based aid, and 45 percent expected they would. 

That perception could have been influenced by a few factors, including FAFSA assistance offerings at a student’s high school, time spent with a high school counselor, and that counselor’s own caseload, according to the report. 

“Attending a school that has a counselor whose primary responsibility was college applications and/or college selection was associated with students having 37 percent greater odds of believing they would qualify for need-based financial aid,” the authors write. 

The data set also includes information on the students’ postsecondary plans when they began high school.

“[H]aving these early college aspirations shaped FAFSA filing plans even after controlling for parents’ educational expectations and limiting the sample to students who (as of 2012) planned to continue their education beyond high school in Fall 2013,” according to the authors. “Perhaps making plans to pursue college in ninth grade induces students to find out about the financial aid process—or at least find out about it earlier in their college choice process. Further research should examine the effect of early college plans on when students acquire financial aid knowledge and the quality and accuracy of their knowledge.”

From NASFAA’s perspective, instituting a Pell Promise could be one way to help high school students understand both their need-based aid eligibility and why they should file the FAFSA. Under NASFAA’s recommendation, a Pell Promise would alert  students as early as ninth grade of their future eligibility for funds to help pay for college.


Publication Date: 3/26/2015

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