Making the FAFSA Mandatory

Texas will become the second state to require high school seniors to submit an application for federal student aid, a step that higher ed researchers say is linked to college enrollment.

July 10, 2019
 
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In a bid to boost the number of students receiving financial support for college, Texas will soon become the second state to require high school seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid before graduating.

A handful of states have looked at making FAFSA completion mandatory for graduating high school students. Beginning with the 2021-22 academic year, Texas will provide a serious test case for the policy after big successes in Louisiana, which enacted the requirement last year.

Completing the form is a leading indicator of college enrollment. And there’s ample evidence that more financial aid is associated with outcomes like college completion. Actually achieving big gains in FAFSA completion, though, requires significant investment and outreach by schools and state officials.

During the past academic year, Louisiana saw FAFSA completions by high school students climb by more than 25 percent. College access groups say high school seniors leave millions of aid dollars on the table each year by not completing the form -- often because it’s too difficult or they don’t believe they’ll qualify for aid.

“As the forerunner of this kind of policy, the early successes that Louisiana has seen with mandatory FAFSA has to be encouraging for other states,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Access Network. “We shouldn’t assume Texas will see the same effects Louisiana did. But given the scale of the state, even a modest effect could make a big splash on the FAFSA completion cycle.”

If Texas has 25 percent of the growth Louisiana saw in FAFSA completions, that would mean an additional 12,700 students submit the application, DeBaun said.

According to numbers from NCAN, Louisiana ranks first among all states this financial aid cycle, with a completion rate of 78.7 percent. Texas ranks a distant 31, with a completion rate of 55.2 percent.

The complexity of the FAFSA application has come under increasing scrutiny at the federal level. Senate lawmakers negotiating a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act have identified a streamlined application as a top priority.

The Education Department in recent years has rolled out changes designed to simplify FAFSA completion, like the IRS data retrieval tool and the use of prior-prior year family income. But only Congress could alter the application itself.

Sujuan Boutté​, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said the complexity of the form remains the biggest obstacle for students and parents, whether or not a state requires completion.

“It’s not just going to happen. There are going to have to be strategies in place,” she said.

In Louisiana, that meant a multipronged approach to FAFSA completion backed by funding from the Kresge Foundation. The organization worked one on one with students during the school day and with parents in the evening on completing separate portions of the application. It also launched a peer support program where current college students assisted high school seniors in completing the form.

The organization also used automated phone messages to remind parents about completing the form. And it offered financial vouchers for students to purchase items like a graduation cap and gown if they completed the form.

Boutte said school officials also have to be there to assist students even after the FAFSA is submitted -- many need assistance making sense of financial aid offers when deciding on a college.

In Louisiana, students can get certain waivers to the requirement. The same is true under the Texas law. A parent or student aged 18 or older can opt out. A school counselor can grant a waiver for good cause. And students can also fulfill the obligation by completing the Texas Application for State Financial Aid.

There are still details to be worked out in how the requirement would work in practice on Texas high school campuses. The Texas Education Agency will appoint an advisory committee to that will make recommendations on carrying out the new FAFSA requirement by January of 2021.

High school counselors for the most part don’t track whether students have submitted a FAFSA, said Lesa Pritchard, president-elect of the Texas School Counselor Association and executive director of student support services at Boerne Independent School District outside San Antonio.

“I don’t know what tool there is going to be for tracking it,” she said.

Colleges in the state can currently track individual FAFSA completion. And counselors at some school districts can access that information through an agreement with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

(Note: this story previously stated that counselors are unable to track FAFSA completion.)

They’re also already tasked with a number of compliance activities -- students in the state must receive CPR instruction and training on how to interact with a police officer before graduating high school. Both requirements must be documented on a student’s transcript.

“We need a lot more students to get a postsecondary education,” said Pritchard. “If this will help, obviously we’re game for that.”

Some states, like Colorado, have begun sharing FAFSA completion records with high school counselors, noted Nick Hillman, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. With few states seriously scaling up their student aid programs, boosting FAFSA completion may be the most effective way to get more financial support to college students who need it, he said.

Research strongly suggests more financial aid can lead to improvements in graduation rates and other outcomes.

“I prefer states do this over financial literacy requirements,” Hillman said. “There’s a lot of good evidence behind this.”

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