Minnesota education officials have set an aggressive new goal to increase the percentage of state high school seniors who file for college financial aid by 25% over the next five years.

Just 48% of Minnesota seniors in the class of 2021 filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the state's lowest share in recent years, ranking it near the bottom of the nation. State education leaders want to see Minnesota's FAFSA completion percentage increase by 5% annually until it reaches about 75%.

"We know that FAFSA filing really is considered to be the single greatest indicator that a student will enroll in college following high school," Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said.

The FAFSA is a key step in the college-going process, determining students' eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study funding.

Increasing the share of seniors who submit the form could help boost enrollment at state colleges and universities, many of which lost students during the pandemic, officials say. It also could help the state reach its goal of having 70% of Minnesotans ages 25 to 44 earn a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025.

But Minnesota seniors set to graduate next spring are off to a slow start in FAFSA completion, with filings down 10% from where they were at this time last year.

"If that continues to lag compared to last year … I think that could be a challenge for higher education," said Chris George, dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Olaf College in Northfield. "We're all going to suffer if we don't see students opting back in."

School counselors and state officials say the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the declining number of seniors submitting a FAFSA. Students have grappled with disruptions to their personal lives, pressure to help support their families financially and fatigue from distance learning, so the tedious process of filing for financial aid may not be such a priority.

Some skip the FAFSA because they do not think they will qualify for aid, though many find out through completing the form that they can indeed afford to go to college.

The state Office of Higher Education and Department of Education are working with local high schools, colleges and advocacy organizations to reach the new goal, Olson said. They are particularly focused on getting more students of color to file the FAFSA, since some minority student populations have completion rates below 30%, he said.

Olson said he hopes state lawmakers will consider incentive programs or additional funding for local school districts that aggressively try to increase their FAFSA filing rates.

Minnesota could also benefit from increasing its number of school counselors, who often help guide students toward higher education, Olson said. The state has one of the worst student-counselor ratios in the country.

"Our counselors are certainly the first touch point for students," he said.

Minnesota School Counselor Association Co-President Tanis Henderson said she would like to see the state create FAFSA informational brochures that schools can distribute to students and families.

"The Office of Higher Ed is great at pulling some of that stuff together, but I don't know that the messaging gets down to the people who are actually going through it," said Henderson, a counselor at Grand Rapids High School. "It really has to be a multifaceted approach."

Some college student advocacy groups in Minnesota have called for the state to make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement, a step they believe would result in more seniors pursuing higher education. A handful of states, including Louisiana and Texas, have done this.

Olson called the state goal a "starting point" that will likely pave the way for new measures that support it. But he said there are many efforts that can be made to improve the state's FAFSA filing rate before pushing for such a requirement.

"Not to say that it's ever off the table, but we've got a long way to go before we get there," Olson said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth