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