Thousands of Connecticut high school graduates are leaving millions of dollars in Pell Grant funding on the table, either due to incomplete financial aid applications or a decision to forego higher education altogether. 

According to statistics from the National College Attainment Network, in 2021, 40% of high school graduates in the state did not complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA), which determines a student’s eligibility for grants, scholarships, and other financial aid awards. Of the more than 17,000 grads who didn’t fill out the form, an estimated 6,400 would have qualified for Pell Grant funding of around $4,500 each, meaning almost $29 million in federal funding went unclaimed by Connecticut grads.

So why would thousands of students leave millions on the table? Representatives with the state Department of Education say there are several reasons an application might remain incomplete.

“There may be awareness and trust barriers, particularly among low-income households and households with undocumented family members who may be reluctant to share tax or other personal information on a federal government application,” explains Department of Education Commissioner Charlene M. Russell-Tucker.

For those students, there is good news. The current 100-question FAFSA will be overhauled soon, shortening it to less than 40 questions and requiring considerably less information.

Meanwhile, students in higher-income families often assume they don’t qualify for financial aid, though there are state grants that apply to all applicants. 

But a big reason for the unclaimed funds? A growing number of high school graduates are foregoing higher education altogether. 

“Our state’s economy is expected to require 70% of workers to have some type of postsecondary credential by 2025, and as of 2020, we were short of that by about 13 points amongst working-age adults,” says Russell-Tucker. “Moreover, high school graduates who don’t pursue a postsecondary education earn significantly less than their college-educated peers, are more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to live in poverty.”

She adds that this can, of course, affect some groups more than others.

“While declines in college enrollment are occurring across all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, students of color and those from low-income families are showing greater declines,” she says. “Given that college entrance rates for these student groups were already lower prior to the pandemic, such declines could exacerbate future impacts.”

To combat the low FAFSA completion numbers, the state implemented the FAFSA challenge, which tracks completion rates among high school seniors by school. The data is available publicly and the program runs through the end of the month.

Connecticut’s numbers aren’t at odds with national averages. Rather, the 60% completion rates are right in line with other states while others, like Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and others have completion rates below 50%.

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An Emmy and AP award-winning journalist, Tricia has spent more than a decade working in digital and broadcast media. She has covered everything from government corruption to science and space to entertainment...

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