To access federal, state and institutional financial aid, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Research shows that students who file the FAFSA are 63% more likely to attend college; yet personal finance site NerdWallet reports that 36% of the high school class of 2017 didn’t apply for financial aid. That means an estimated $2.3 billion in free money for college was left on the table.

Surveys indicate that many students don’t complete the FAFSA because they believe it’s too complicated or that they are not eligible for aid. Some don’t even know that financial aid exists.

Moreover, a recent NCAN study found that low FAFSA completion rates don’t afflict all students equally. In most states, high school seniors in higher-poverty school districts are less likely to complete the FAFSA than students in wealthier districts: For every 10 percentage-point increase in the proportion of children living in poverty, a school district’s FAFSA completion rate declines by about 3 percentage points.



With $1 million grants from both Ascendium and The Kresge Foundation, NCAN issued a FAFSA Completion Challenge in spring 2018 to 100 cities across the country, inviting them to apply to raise FAFSA completion rates among their high school seniors by at least 5 percentage points.

This challenge builds on the success of NCAN and The Kresge Foundation’s 2016-17 FAFSA Completion Challenge, in which 22 of the largest U.S. cities collectively increased FAFSA completion rates by 4.43 percentage points and helped reverse a four-year decline in the nationwide rate.

Based on the strength of their proposals, 25 cities were selected to participate in the 2018-19 challenge. Each city has below-average FAFSA filing rates and a population of more than 100,000 residents. 

The participating cities received grants of up to $40,000 and support from NCAN, including:

  • Training in effective practices to raise awareness of the importance of FAFSA completion and how to support students to complete the form.
  • Form Your Future® resources to guide marketing and communications campaigns that will reach all students, including those most in need of FAFSA assistance.
  • Data tracking in a custom dashboard to target outreach efforts to individuals who have yet to file the FAFSA.

In September 2019, NCAN announced Mesa, Arizona as the winner. The city saw a 9.32% increase in FAFSA completions over the previous year—well above the 5% challenge—and received $100,000 to continue the momentum. NCAN also awarded monetary prizes to runner-up Denton, Texas; Rochester, Minnesota for excellence in overcoming barriers; Corpus Christi, Texas for community leadership; and West Valley City, Utah for top-notch training and professional development.


Contact Program Officer Carolynn Lee at