The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Do Single Mothers Claim Their Share? Fafsa Completion Among Aid-Eligible Female Students

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 1:30 PM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon F, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Radey, PhD, Associate Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Leah P. Cheatham, MSW, JD, Doctoral Student, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: Approximately 40% of single-mother families live in poverty compared to 10% of married-couple families.  Post-secondary education is an important mechanism for single mothers to exit poverty.  Beyond financial benefits, higher educational attainment is related to more time with children, increased parental involvement, and children’s higher educational aspirations and attainment.  Financial aid is a critical mechanism that makes college education feasible for many individuals, including single mothers, who otherwise could not afford attendance costs.  In order to receive most forms of financial aid, students must complete a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).  The current analysis examines FAFSA completion among aid-eligible, female students.  First, we examine how student status (i.e., single mother, other independent student, and dependent student), socioeconomic characteristics, and academic vulnerabilities (e.g., delayed enrollment, no high school diploma) influence FAFSA completion.  Second, we apply intersectionality theory to examine how student status, race/ethnicity, and poverty identities converge to influence completion.

Methods: We utilized the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), a nationally-representative study of 114,000 undergraduates and 14,000 graduate students attending public, private, for-profit, and not-for-profit institutions varying in program length from less than two years through four-year colleges and universities.  To participate, students completed online interviews about their student experiences, employment, and demographic information.  Institutions supplemented self-reported information with tuition, financial aid, and institutional student records. Using the 2007-08 wave of data, we restrict the sample to female students with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) likely eligible for need-based financial assistance ($4,110 or less) (n =37,199).  Binomial logistic regression models measured (1) how student status, demographic, socioeconomic, and non-traditional covariates relate to FAFSA completion, and (2) if (and how) student status interacts with race/ethnicity, and poverty level.

Findings: Descriptive findings showed the diversity and vulnerability of aid-eligible, college women.  Approximately 29% were single mothers, 52% were attending school part-time, and one-third maintained full-time employment.  On average, students lived at 128% of the poverty level and single mothers fared significantly worse at 98%. Single mothers were more likely to complete FAFSAs (89%) than dependent students (84%) or other independent students (67%).  Multivariate analyses revealed that single mothers’ economic and non-traditional vulnerabilities explained their higher rates of FAFSA completion.  Net of covariates, single mothers experienced 33% lower odds of completion compared to dependent students.  Vulnerabilities were generally associated with lower FAFSA completion: those without traditional high school diplomas, those working full-time, and those attending school part-time all exhibited lower odds of FAFSA completion.  While racial/ethnic-student status interactions did not obtain statistical significance, significant poverty interactions revealed that the poorest single mothers and the wealthiest aid-eligible other independent students filed FAFSA applications at lower-than-expected rates. 

Implications: Economic, academic, and family vulnerabilities relate to lower FAFSA completion, suggesting that aid does not reach the neediest students, as intended by federal programs. Severely-impoverished single-mother students, a population with much to gain from post-secondary education, deserve guidance to maximize their grant receipt. We discuss educational financing inequalities in light of welfare reform and present implications for social work practice, policy, and research.