FAFSA Completion Rate

Percent of North Carolina high school seniors completing Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSAs)

Last updated: 2019

= Top southern state

(not available for all indicators)

The FAFSA completion rate is the estimated percentage of North Carolina high school seniors completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

North Carolina’s FAFSA completion rate is currently 64%, placing our state 19th among all states in 2019. Tennessee had the highest FAFSA completion rate (80%) among southern comparison states; Louisiana (83%) had the highest rate overall.

By 2030, the goal is that 80% of North Carolina high school seniors will complete the FAFSA. This goal was set by the myFutureNC Commission.

Completing the FAFSA is strongly and positively associated with postsecondary enrollment. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 88% of high school seniors who completed a FAFSA in 2012-13 had attended college by February 2016, compared to 49% of students who did not file a FAFSA.

FAFSA completion is necessary for students to receive federal student aid; it is also used by many states and colleges to determine student eligibility for state and school aid. Many students who are eligible for financial aid don’t ever fill out their FAFSA form. High school seniors in the most economically distressed communities are less likely to complete the FAFSA than students from wealthier districts.

This leaves money on the table—lots of it. A 2014 research paper analyzing national data about financial aid non-applicants estimated that college students who didn’t complete the form were missing out on $24 billion in Pell Grants, subsidized student loans, work-study, and state aid programs.

Meeting the 2030 Goal

North Carolina needs 17,575 more high school seniors to complete the FAFSA to meet the statewide goal.

In 2018, North Carolina’s FAFSA completion rate was 59%, ranking 20th among the states. By 2019, the FAFSA completion rate increased to 64% and was ranked 19th among the states.

By economic disadvantage

In North Carolina, students from lower-income districts were less likely to complete the FAFSA than students from higher-income districts, according to a recent analysis by the National College Access Network. In 2019, 54% of students from school districts at the 25th percentile of district poverty completed the FAFSA compared to 48% of students from school districts at the 75th percentile of poverty.

Where does the data for the FAFSA completion rate come from?

FAFSA completion rates for all states were obtained from the National College Attainment Network.

How was the data calculated?

Statewide data was a direct download from the National College Attainment Network.

Who is included?

FAFSA completion data represents the share of all high school seniors who filed a FAFSA for the following academic year by the summer after high school graduation.

For example, students who are high school seniors during the 2019-20 school year can begin to submit applications for the 2020-21 FAFSA cycle on October 1, 2019. While students can submit FAFSA applications until June 30, 2021, this analysis focuses on applications that are submitted by the summer after these students graduate high school: June-August 2020.

Fafsa cycle 2019-2021, image showing the overlap from the end of the 2019 highschool senior year in June 2020, the start of the fafsa cycle in october of 2019, the beginning of the 2020-2021 post-secondary year in July of 2020 and the end of the fafsa cycle in June of 2021.

Federal Student Aid defines high school seniors as “first-time filing applicants no older than 19 at the cutoff date who will have received their high school diploma by the start of the school year to which they are applying for aid.”

Who isn’t included?

Overall, FAFSA completion rates are underestimated and may impact certain areas or schools more than others. High schools with fewer than five FAFSA completers are not reported by Federal Student Aid.

FAFSA completion rate = Total number of completed FAFSA applications in all schools with 5 or more completed applications / total grade 12 enrollment

The FAFSA application does not ask whether the applicant is a high school senior and Federal Student Aid estimates a student’s status based on a series of assumptions. Federal Student Aid notes that the following students are not included in the high school data:

  • students who report (incorrectly or otherwise) that they will receive anything other than a high school diploma.
  • students who have filed a FAFSA in a previous cycle, regardless of whether they attended college.
  • students who report that they will be anything but an incoming first-year undergraduate.

This is not a comprehensive list. You can find a complete list of data details and assumptions on the FAFSA completion website.

Who is working on this in NC?

Help improve this section

If you know of an organization that is working on this topic in NC, please let us know on the feedback form.

Name: College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC)

Scope: Statewide

Website: https://www.cfnc.org/fafsaday

About: A free service of the State of North Carolina that helps students plan, apply, and pay for college. In conjunction with the North Carolina Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the State Employees’ Credit Union, CFNC offers free programs to help students complete and submit the FAFSA form.

Name: Crosby Scholars

Scope: County-level

Website: https://www.crosbyscholars.org

About: The Crosby Scholars Community Partnership, helps students in public middle and high schools in Forsyth, Rowan, and Iredell Counties prepare academically, personally, and financially for college admission and other postsecondary opportunities best suited to a student’s needs, aptitudes and dreams. With a 26-year history of providing academic training, financial aid and college application workshops, advisory services, college tours and Last Dollar Grant, Crosby Scholars now serves more than 11,600 students per year.

Name: FAFSA Frenzy NC

Scope: Statewide

Website: https://fafsafrenzync.com/

About: Launched by education and state leaders, FAFSA Frenzy NC provides a quick introduction to what students and their families need to file the FAFSA.

Name: Finish the FAFSA Project

Scope: Statewide

Contact: Dr. Marcia Weston (mweston@ncseaa.edu), Associate Director for Outreach, Grants, Training, and Outreach, NC State Education Assistance Authority

About: The FINISH the FAFSA Project is a free service to public high schools in North Carolina that tracks the status of FAFSA completion rates in the state.  Through cooperative efforts with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, a match is made through a database between high school graduating seniors and FAFSAs filed. School counselors and other college access professionals working with seniors are able to monitor FAFSA completion status through a secure database.  No personal information such as income or social security information is accessible.


Scope: National and Statewide

Websites: https://www.northcarolina.edu/gearup

About: The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) project is a national college access initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education. To participate in GEAR UP, a school must have a student body comprised of at least 50% free and reduced price lunch enrollment.  The federal goal of GEAR UP is to significantly increase the number of students in disadvantaged communities who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

The University of North Carolina System was awarded a seven-year grant in 2012 for GEAR UP NC to provide college access and readiness services. GEAR UP NC directly engages students in partner schools starting in the 7th grade year, providing these students with academic readiness and college access support over the course of their middle and high school careers. Since 2012, GEAR UP NC has also engaged 12th grade students in partner high schools with college application and financial aid application support.

Name: North Carolina Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NCASFAA)

Scope: Statewide

Website: https://www.ncasfaa.com

About: The North Carolina Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NCASFAA) provides training and professional development opportunities to the financial aid community, advocates on behalf of financial aid professionals, and strives to promote educational access and choice for students.

Name: North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority

Scope: Statewide

Website: http://www.ncseaa.edu/

About: North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) provides a number of services to the State of North Carolina including administration of the state’s four postsecondary educational grant programs, the “529” National College Savings Program, and the State scholarship grants for parents sending children to private K-12 institutions. NCSEAA also promotes access to financial aid resources through outreach activities with school counselors, financial aid administrators, and college access professionals.

Further research and literature

Eberle-Sudre, K. (2015). The FAFSA Divide: Getting More Low-Income Students to Apply for Aid. Retrieved November 27, 2019, from https://edtrust.org/the-equity-line/the-fasfa-divide-getting-more-low-income-students-to-apply-for-aid/.

Kofoed, M. (2014). To Apply or Not to Apply: FAFSA Completion and Financial Aid Gaps. Retrieved November 27, 2019 from http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2353846.

National College Access Network. (2017). An Analysis of the Relationship Between School District Poverty and FAFSA Completion in June 2016 and June 2017. Washington, DC: National College Access Network.

National College Access Network. (n.d.). Why Invest in Increasing FAFSA Completion? Retrieved December 1, 2019, from https://collegeaccess.org/page/WhyInvestFAFSA.

Reeves, R. V., & Guyot, K. (2018, May 7). FAFSA completion rates matter: But mind the data. Retrieved November 13, 2019, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/fafsa-completion-rates-matter-but-mind-the-data/.

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