About 11,000 Washington high-school graduates didn't fill out the paperwork that would have unlocked financial aid to go to college tuition-free in 2017, a new study shows.

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The promise of free college makes a snappy campaign pledge, as many candidates have discovered. But you might be surprised to learn that thousands of Washington students already have the opportunity to go to college for free — and don’t bother to take it.

In 2017, about 11,000 students who graduated from Washington high schools could have gone to college tuition-free. Because they didn’t fill out a federal financial-aid form, they essentially rejected that offer and left about $50 million in federal financial aid on the table, according to a new state study.

That money could have been used to pay for a technical or two-year degree at a community college, a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, or even tuition at a few private career colleges. Yet about 46 percent of students who likely qualified for one specific state program, the College Bound Scholarship, didn’t fill out the necessary Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — and thus lost out on that money.

This year’s picture isn’t much brighter. As of Feb. 15, among all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Washington ranked 42nd for the percentage of its seniors who have filled out the FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network, a nonprofit that tracks FAFSA sign-ups.

Why did so many students ignore the federal financial-aid form? State officials have some hunches.

Students who didn’t complete the FAFSA said the form was too complicated, they didn’t think they were eligible for aid or they didn’t know financial aid existed, according to a survey by the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), a state agency that administers College Bound.

Beyond those answers, “We think it sheds light on the notion that college-going is more than just affordability,” said Michael Meotti, executive director of WSAC. “Students need to have some sort of vision to drive their behavior.”

Students and families may also need to hear a very explicit message that they can go to college for free, he said. In 2015, Tennessee promised all of its high-school graduates that they could go to community college tuition-free, a program that made its FAFSA completions soar and caused a small bump in college enrollment.

More than a third of Washington’s 65,491 public high-school graduates in 2017 were signed up for the College Bound Scholarship program. Yet among this group, only about 54 percent filled out the FAFSA.

The state financial-aid program pays tuition, fees and some book expenses for students who sign up in 7th or 8th grade, graduate with at least a 2.0 GPA (or C average) and have no felony convictions. Students who were brought to this country illegally as children may also be eligible for College Bound, and would need to fill out a state form called the Washington Application for State Financial Aid to qualify.

It’s possible that a small number of students didn’t fill out the form because their GPA was below 2.0, they were convicted of a felony or their family income had skyrocketed since they signed up for the program four or five years earlier, Meotti said.

Some might have decided they were done with school after they got their high-school diploma, but Meotti thinks that later in life, they’ll regret that decision. “I’m pretty confident that, of those not pursuing it, this is not a conscious, well-informed choice,” he said.

College Bound is just one of a number of financial-aid programs, although it’s unique because it promises low-income students in middle school that they can go to college for free — thus giving them an incentive to do well in high school. When they’re in college, the program helps knit together all the different pots of federal and state aid to fully cover tuition at all Washington public colleges and universities, and some of the costs at certain private schools.

Not too late for this year’s seniors

Meotti said that for most high-school seniors in the class of 2019 who plan to go to college this fall, it’s not too late to fill out the FAFSA, although you’ll want to do it soon, since some sources of money run out early. And because the FAFSA is based on the previous year’s tax return — that is, the 2017 return — you don’t need to have finished your 2018 taxes to complete it.

Some people have wondered if Washington state’s relatively high median household income could explain low FAFSA completion rates. But Massachusetts, which has the fifth-highest median income in the country, has the third-highest percentage of FAFSA completers. Other states with FAFSA rates nearly as low as Washington’s include Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Utah, all of which have lower median incomes than Washington does.

What’s more, many selective private schools that offer scholarships require their students to fill out the FAFSA. Regardless of the size of a family’s income, there’s no reason not to fill out the FAFSA, Meotti said.

Meanwhile, the Legislature this year is considering a change to the state’s other major aid program, the State Need Grant, another program that requires students to fill out the FAFSA. Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed changing the name to the Washington College Promise Scholarship and guaranteeing that by 2021-22, the estimated 93,000 students whose families make 70 percent or less of the state’s median family income would get help paying for college. Those changes require approval by the Legislature, which is considering two bills that would make the promised scholarship a reality: SB 5393 and HB 1340.