Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

Leaders at North Carolina’s Financial Aid Summit discuss how to boost FAFSA completions

Voiced by Amazon Polly

The second annual North Carolina Financial Aid Summit convened school district financial aid leaders and partner organizations from across the state this week. Leaders discussed strategies to increase the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completions and the number of students pursuing a postsecondary degree or industry-valued credential. 

The two-day event also included the latest FAFSA updates.

What does FAFSA mean for the future?

Students planning to attend college submit the FAFSA to apply for federal grants, work-study funds, and loans. Plus, many states use students’ FAFSA information to determine eligibility for state and school aid.

“We know that FAFSA and college-going are really strongly connected,” Bill DeBaun, senior director of data and strategic initiatives National College Attainment Network (NCAN) said.

A longitudinal study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Statistics reported that among the graduating class of 2013, 91.5% of students who completed a FAFSA were enrolled in postsecondary education as of November 2013, compared to 49.7% of students who did not complete the FAFSA.

“But we also know that who completes the FAFSA really matters — that equity in FAFSA completion matters because equity in college-going matters,” DeBaun continued. “But the problem is that FAFSA completion is often easily inequitable.”

NCAN data show that, in general, high schools that are higher income and serve lower percentages of students of color have higher FAFSA completion rates and shallower FAFSA completion declines year-over-year, DeBaun said.

NCAN national data on FAFSA completions by high school characteristics.
NCAN North Carolina data on FAFSA completions by high school characteristics.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 13 million students who file the FAFSA receive more than “$120 billion in grants, work-study, and low-interest loans.” 

But in 2023, high school seniors left over $4 billion on the table in federal Pell Grants by not completing the FAFSA.  

National and state-level completion rates

According to recent data from NCAN, there have been more than 1.8 million FAFSA completions nationally as of June 14. That’s 44.7% of the high school class of 2024. 

Not long ago, North Carolina was ahead of the national average.

But this year, North Carolina ranks 29th in the nation, with 42% of the state’s high school seniors having completed the FAFSA. You can view state-by-state data here.

NCAN North Carolina data on FAFSA completions through the years.

DeBaun said it’s possible North Carolina could finish in the top 20 nationwide for FAFSA completions. 

A goal of the summit is to provide space for leaders to strategize and create action plans for increasing FAFSA completions, including closing equity gaps in completions.

“Each of you plays a critical role in educational attainment for North Carolinians across the state,” Cecilia Holden, myFutureNC’s president and CEO, said. “And because of this, we’re grateful for your ongoing contributions and the perseverance that you’ve had, especially during such a difficult and challenging year around FAFSA.” 

The U.S. Department of Education’s roll out of the new simplified version of FAFSA was marked by a three-month delay. In addition to the delay, technical issues and slowed data releases created a host of challenges for families, school districts, colleges, and financial aid partners. 

Echoing Holden, MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment (JMBE), called financial aid leaders rocks stars, praising them for their persistence despite the complexities this year. 

Summit speakers also highlighted North Carolina’s newest scholarship opportunity — Next NC. 

“Next NC came out of a work coalition in 2019 to assess financial aid opportunities in North Carolina,” Pilon said. “The findings were clear: we have great financial aid opportunities available, but they were spread across multiple awards and were confusing to students and families and the people trying to help them connect.” 

The Next NC Scholarship combines state funds and the Federal Pell Grant to offer free community college tuition for North Carolina students with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $80,000 or less. The scholarship also covers at least half of UNC System tuition. 

Qualifying students enrolling in any of the state’s 58 community colleges can receive at least $3,000 for tuition and fees, and students enrolling in any of the state’s 16 public universities will receive at least $5,000 for tuition and fees. 

FAFSA updates and changes to College Foundation of North Carolina

Attendees wanted to know when this year’s FAFSA will open. 

In a Q&A session, DeBaun pointed to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s recent White House Appropriations Committee meeting, during which Cardona said an Oct. 1, 2024 FAFSA opening is the highest priority. 

You can view more FAFSA updates and workarounds to glitches here. 

North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority’s Executive Director Andrea Poole announced updates to the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC). CFNC is a free service in the state and “promotes access to North Carolina higher education and assists students with education planning, career planning, and applying and paying for college.” 

Poole said CFNC will undergo a name change — moving to College for North Carolina. The acronym will remain the same. An updated logo and branding will roll out this year. 

CFNC plans to expand coverage and add an eighth regional representative to better align with the state Department of Public Instruction. Additionally, the work of CFNC will be refocused, guided by data that focuses on schools and students most in need of assistance. The target population of CFNC will initially be focused on grades 8-12. 

More from this year’s summit

FAFSA completion and career planning not only matter to students and their families, but also the state and nation. 

Holden expressed that education leaders and partners play an important role in creating a future that is sustainable in the long term, meaning that individuals are part of the education to workforce labor market down the road. 

As speakers reiterated, there is a vested interest in cross-sector collaboration when it comes to FAFSA completion efforts.

Some of the current efforts happening across the state include nonprofits and philanthropies providing grants to school districts to aid in FAFSA completion efforts. 

This year, myFutureNC continued their FAFSA pilot that provides grants to 37 school districts. JMBE also provided grants to five school districts.

The Equitable Foundation partnered with JMBE and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to create a FAFSA specialist role for the district. The primary role of this position is to increase the number of FAFSA submissions and completions among CMS high school seniors. 

In addition to partnership lessons, financial aid leaders from school districts met multiple times throughout the convening with their regional counterparts to discuss strategies, lessons learned, and create action plans for the upcoming school year. 

Youth speaker and CEO of Y.B.Normal Logan Taylor closed out the summit by discussing ways for school leaders to build better relationships with students and communities.

“Relationships are the new currency.”

Logan Taylor, CEO of Y.B.Normal

Taylor went on to emphasize the importance of mental health supports for students but also supports for school leaders and counselors.

“Y’all can’t pour from an empty cup,” Taylor said.

Creating systems of support and spaces for self-care should be priorities Taylor said.

EdNC will continue to track FAFSA updates. You can view our most recent coverage here.

Resources for students and families

Resources for institutions

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is the Director of Postsecondary Attainment for EducationNC.