New Study Looks at States’ FAFSA Simplification Success Strategies

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

While the rollout of the 2024-25 FAFSA has been tumultuous, a new case study took a look at four states and their successful strategies to implement and employ FAFSA completion initiatives for the ongoing cycle. 

The case study, conducted by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), selected Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, and Minnesota as representative higher education state agencies that implemented successful FAFSA simplification strategies. In total SHEEO worked with 17 states to examine the impact of FAFSA simplification on state financial aid programs.

Looking specifically at the states’ work, SHEEO highlighted the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE), which began preparing for FAFSA simplification with the creation of a cross-agency working group in 2021. The working group developed a roadmap and timeline for FAFSA simplification changes with consideration of the state’s legislative schedule. Additionally, the Minnesota agency used long-standing relationships with partners outside of the agency, including high schools, institutions of higher education, and community organizations to communicate the upcoming changes with FAFSA simplification. 

SHEEO also noted that Minnesota’s OHE modeled the effects of the new FAFSA on Pell Grant and Minnesota state grant receipt early in order to test potential impacts on students. As new guidance was released from the Department of Education (ED), the agency revised the projected changes to state financial aid programs. 

“Responding to simplification in Minnesota was a success thanks to a state context of cooperation and trust and the long runway to implementation that the OHE staff created,” SHEEO wrote. “Staff were intentional in identifying the problem they were trying to solve, justifying proposed changes, and communicating transparently with stakeholders.”

The case study also also looked at Alabama, Illinois, and Louisiana, which all had universal FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement, though, as of this spring, Louisiana will no longer require students to complete the FAFSA to graduate high school. 

Louisiana was the first state to implement a universal FAFSA policy. In its first year, with the high school class of 2018, the policy increased FAFSA completion by 26%. Even though FAFSA completion will no longer be a graduation requirement, beginning with the high school class of 2025, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA) said they were “hopeful” that FAFSA completion will remain high in the state citing its usage for merit-based scholarship.

Alabama, after implementing its universal FAFSA policy, increased FAFSA completions by 24.9% for the class of 2022. As part of the policy, the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) contracted with Oracle Student Financial Planning to manage and track the FAFSA completions in the state for graduating seniors to report on student errors and provide supportive information for high schools and their counselors. Through this partnership, Oracle provided the ACHE FAFSA Portal with real-time FAFSA completion data and managed the technical and systemic changes needed to adjust to the new FAFSA.

Even with the challenges of the 2024-25 FAFSA, the partnership worked to maintain and share up-to-date FAFSA information on submission errors and completions with students and schools. 

Illinois adopted a universal FAFSA policy as a high school graduation requirement in 2021, and also saw an increase in FAFSA completions by 3.1%, which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

SHEEO wrote that the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) has fostered a statewide culture of FAFSA completion through extensive outreach and support for students through partnerships with Chicago Public Schools. Additionally, the organization created ISACorps, a group of highly trained recent college graduates who serve as near-peer mentors to high school students. 

Beyond that, ISAC has used a text messaging service to connect college-bound students with financial aid experts at the agency since January 2016, and hosts a FAFSA symposium each year. According to SHEEO the event brings together college access professionals and other practitioners to share strategies for FAFSA completion. 

The case studies found that the four states shared similar themes in order to prepare to implement the FAFSA Simplification Act. One of those themes was states having a high staff capacity. 

According to SHEEO states that were able to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges of the 2024-25 FAFSA had sufficient staff capacity, and were able to collaborate with other organizations or hire additional staff. 

However, SHEEO noted that hiring additional staff is often beyond the scope of most state agencies and may not be possible on short notice.

Another theme that state agencies with successfully FAFSA simplification strategies shared was early planning. States that planned for the potential impacts of FAFSA simplification in advance were better prepared and able to handle unexpected challenges, SHEEO wrote. Specifically, a runway of at least two years allowed state agencies to alert legislators about the need for policy responses. 

Further, it’s crucial that state agencies in the early stages or preparing for FAFSA simplification, communicate with stakeholders – including students, their families, and high school counselors. 

“The changes to the FAFSA form and the process for awarding aid are complex enough to necessitate explanation and reassurance from state agency outreach staff,” SHEEO wrote. “Moreover, the challenges with the FAFSA rollout could have led students and families to lose trust in the system, if not for the support and assistance of state agency staff.”


Publication Date: 6/26/2024

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