Only 61 percent of high school seniors apply for college financial aid by the time they graduate. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Deadlines set by many states and schools to apply for college financial aid are approaching fast, and preliminary results from the U.S. Department of Education show high school students in some states are getting a jump on others.

The starting gun in the race to claim a share of the $150 billion in assistance the federal government distributes to college students each year went off on Oct. 1.

As of Jan. 12, the five states with the highest percentage of seniors springing from the blocks and filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, are:

  • Tennessee (60.4 percent)
  • Kentucky (52.7 percent)
  • Illinois (51.6 percent)
  • Massachusetts (46.7 percent)
  • New Jersey (46.0 percent)

High school students in the nation’s capital are right in the thick of it, with 50.8 percent of high school seniors in Washington, D.C. having completed the FAFSA so far.

Although there’s still time to fill out the FAFSA, students living in the five states at the bottom of the list are being left in the dust:

  • Alaska (19.7 percent)
  • Utah (20.7 percent)
  • North Dakota (24.8 percent)
  • Georgia (27.4 percent)
  • Arizona (27.9 percent)

According to the National College Access Network (NCAN), students who fail to fill out the FAFSA leave $24 billion in federal aid on the table each year.

NCAN compiled the state rankings above as part of a publicity campaign to encourage high school students headed to college next fall to apply for financial aid sooner rather than later.

NCAN’s #FormYourFuture FAFSA tracker will be updated weekly with the latest stats from from the Department of Education, allowing anyone to see the states and cities where high schools are getting the message out.

“By allowing states and locales to compare outcomes with their peers and others across the country, [NCAN’s FAFSA tracker] aims to inspire a little friendly competition in our collective quest to ensure that all students, especially those underrepresented in higher education, can afford to achieve their educational dreams,” the nonprofit group said.

The FAFSA is a gateway not only to federal student aid, but financial aid from state, colleges and other scholarship programs.

Technically, the Department of Education will accept FAFSA applications for the 2018-2019 school year until June 30, 2019. But states and schools have their own deadlines for applying for aid that’s often handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. So the earlier you submit, the better.

A few state deadlines are already looming (see list below). The cutoff to apply for some of Tennessee’s best programs was Jan. 16. For priority consideration in Missouri, students are advised to apply by Feb. 1, although applications are accepted through April 2. Connecticut’s deadline for priority consideration is Feb. 15.

Deadlines in many other states will continue to crop up in March, April, May and June. The variation in state and school application deadlines helps explain why students in some states have been more motivated than others to file the FAFSA so far.

But there’s also considerable variation by school and school district, as shown by even more detailed data and maps provided by the Department of Education.

The Department of Education’s map of New York, above, shows a lot of yellow and orange as of Jan. 12, 2018, indicating areas where FAFSA completion rates are far below 50 percent. But 12 months into the FAFSA filing season, most of the map will have turned green.

Like NCAN’s FAFSA tracker, the Department of Education’s stats also allow comparisons with FAFSA registration a year ago, allowing high schools and school districts to see whether any outreach campaigns they’ve launched to boost FAFSA completion rates are paying off.

According to NCAN, only 61 percent of high school seniors file the FAFSA by the time they graduate. Among those who don’t, more than half say they didn’t know anything about financial aid.

If completion rates seem alarmingly low at this time of year, it’s because many students who will eventually file the FAFSA are still dragging their heels.

How to file the FAFSA

It costs nothing to fill out the FAFSA, and students have the opportunity to provide their information to as many schools as they’re interested in attending. Although you can only list 10 colleges on your original FAFSA application, there’s an easy hack to send your information to additional schools.

Most students today file the FAFSA online, at fafsa.ed.gov. Although the Department of Education has made many improvements intended to streamline the process, students and their families are occasionally tripped up by small details. One thing to keep an eye out for this year is complications that can arise when transferring income data from the IRS.

NCAN offers free FAFSA completion tools and resources to college counselors and aid officers, and is doing social media outreach on Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s a roundup of more tips and resources on filing the FAFSA:

How to Apply for FAFSA: Deadlines, Tips, and Common Questions for 2018-19

2018-2019 state FAFSA deadlines

Note: The Department of Education will acccept 2018-2019 FAFSA applications online through June 30, 2019. States and colleges have their own deadlines for filing the FAFSA and applying for financial aid. Below is information on state deadlines compiled by the Department of Education, which advises students to check with colleges they are interested in attending for school FAFSA deadlines.

Alabama
Check with financial aid administrator
Alaska
Alaska Performance Scholarship: June 30, 2018 for priority consideration. Alaska Education Grant: As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017, funding awarded until fully depleted.

Arizona
Check with financial aid administrator.

Arkansas
Academic Challenge: June 1, 2018. Higher Education Opportunity Grant: June 1, 2018. Higher Education Opportunity Grant: June 1, 2017. Workforce Grant: Check with financial aid administrator.

California
Deadline for Cal Grant and many state financial aid programs is March 2, 2018. Cal Grant requires submission of a school-certified GPA. Obtain proof that you’ve asked your school to mail your GPA and retain a copy of your GPA form. Many community college Cal Grants are not due until Sept. 2, 2018. Non-citizens holding Social Security cards issued through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or for work authorization should fill out the California Dream Act Application at www.caldreamact.org, not the FAFSA. Contact the California Student Aid Commission, www.csac.ca.gov, or your financial aid administrator for more information.

Colorado
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Connecticut
February 15, 2018 for priority consideration.

District of Columbia
May 1, 2018. For DCTAG, complete the DC OneApp and submit supporting documents by May 31, 2018.

Florida
May 15, 2018.

Georgia
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Idaho
Opportunity Grant: March 1, 2018 for priority consideration.

Illinois
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017 — awards made until funds are depleted.

Indiana
March 10, 2018.

Iowa
July 1, 2018. Earlier priority deadlines may exist for some programs.

Kansas
April 1, 2018 for priority consideration.

Kentucky
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2018. Awards made until funds are depleted.

Louisiana
July 1, 2018 (recommended).

Maine
May 1, 2018.

Maryland
March 1, 2018.

Massachusetts
May 1, 2018 for priority consideration.

Michigan
March 1, 2018.

Minnesota
30 days after term starts.

Mississippi
MTAG and MESG Grants: Sept. 15, 2018.

Missouri
Feb. 1, 2018 for priority consideration. Applications accepted through April 2, 2018.

Montana
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Nebraska
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Nevada
Silver State Opportunity Grant: As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds depleted. All other aid: Check with financial aid administrator.

New Hampshire
Check with your financial aid administrator.

New Jersey
2016–2017 Tuition Aid Grant recipients: April 15, 2018. Fall and spring terms: Sept. 15, 2018. For spring term only: Feb. 15, 2019.

New Mexico
Check with your financial aid administrator.

New York
June 30, 2019.

North Carolina
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds are depleted.

North Dakota
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds are depleted.

Ohio
Oct. 1, 2018.

Oklahoma
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds are depleted.

Oregon
Visit OregonStudentAid.gov for more information or check with your financial aid administrator.

Pennsylvania
May 1, 2018 (general). First–time applicants enrolled in a community college, business/trade/technical school, hospital school of nursing, designated Pennsylvania Open-Admission institution, or non-transferable two-year program: Aug. 1, 2018.

Rhode Island
Check with your financial aid administrator.

South Carolina
Tuition Grants: June 30, 2018. South Carolina Commission on Higher Education Need-based Grants: As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds depleted.

South Dakota
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Tennessee
State grants: Jan. 16, 2018. Eligible prior-year recipients receive priority, and all other awards made to neediest applicants until funds are depleted. State Lottery: fall term, Sept. 1, 2018; spring and summer terms, Feb. 1, 2019. Tennessee Promise: Jan. 16, 2018.

Texas
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Texas public colleges: March 15, 2018 for priority consideration. Texas private colleges: Check with your financial aid administrator.

Utah
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Vermont
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds depleted.

Virginia
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Washington
As soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2017. Awards made until funds depleted.

West Virginia
PROMISE Scholarship: March 1, 2018. New applicants must submit additional application at www.cfwv.com. West Virginia Higher Education Grant Program: April 15, 2018.

Wisconsin
Check with your financial aid administrator.

Wyoming
Check with your financial aid administrator


Matt Carter is the editor of Credible News, which provides information that consumers need to make decisions about student loans and personal finance. We welcome comments and tips. Email: mcarter@credible.com