Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
REPORT 1:
WITH THEIR WHOLE LIVES AHEAD OF THEM
REPORT 2:
CAN I GET A LITTLE ADVICE HERE
REPORT 3:
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION

FINDING No 5: High school graduates have gaps in knowledge that could undercut their own ability to get a college degree in the future.

Despite their belief that they will find a way to earn a decent living without completing a college degree, nearly 4 in 10 high school graduates say they have given “a lot of thought” to going back to school. Another 3 in 10 have given it “some” thought. Yet most overestimate how quickly most students complete their degrees: 62 percent of all high school graduates are not sure or believe —incorrectly—that the “majority of undergraduates complete their degrees in four years.” Most college graduates knew this statement was false. Similarly, 62 percent of high school graduates are not sure or believe—incorrectly—that the majority of community college students graduate in two years. Many college grads weren’t sure about this either: 52 percent were not sure or gave an incorrect answer to this question.

One of the most startling and probably one of the most crucial gaps in knowledge concerned FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—which is the gateway paperwork to both federal and institutional financial aid. While nearly 7 in 10 college graduates were familiar enough with the term to know that it involved financial aid, fewer than 3 in 10 high school graduates recognized it. For many organizations working to expand access to college and increase college completion, making sure that young people complete the FAFSA is job number one. It’s the first step to getting a Pell Grant or federal loan, so students who don’t complete it miss out on that form of help. It is also used by colleges and universities to determine eligibility for institutional financial aid.

This is a significant gap in knowledge, but it may be one of the easiest to address. Some higher education specialists recommend, for example, tying FAFSA completion to getting a high school diploma. Just alerting guidance counselors, teachers, mentors, and those working in programs focused on improving college access and completion to the low levels of knowledge about the FAFSA could lead to a variety of helpful (and probably innovative) ways to address the problem.