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Education Department

In 2018, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to require all public high school students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid before they graduate, boosting the number of Louisianans applying for federal financial aid and the flow of Pell Grants to students there. Despite those gains, the state has become the first state to eliminate such a requirement.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to end its mandate last week, even though the policy appeared to increase financial aid awareness, and the state has been deemed a model for other states adopting similar requirements.

State higher ed officials and some policy makers say Louisiana’s course change will relieve students and parents of a burdensome and invasive requirement and counter the narrative that college is the best path for everyone. But some higher ed experts worry the move will hinder public awareness of financial aid opportunities and impede the state’s efforts to ensure equitable access.

Varied Explanations

Board officials and some Republican legislators offered a range of explanations for the decision. In a Facebook post last year, Representative Charles Owen, a Republican, described FAFSA as “long, invasive and … unnecessary,” stressing to students and families that there was an option to opt out of the mandate and suggesting that there shouldn’t be a requirement at all.

Board member Stacey Melerine, also a Republican, said in an interview that while the original FAFSA policy may have been well-intentioned, the reversal would free school counselors from monitoring parental FAFSA completion and shift their attention to determining the most appropriate post–high school path for each individual student.

“Is college always the best option,” she asked, “or should we steer them toward something that can help them earn a living-wage job and be debt free?”

“We’re not de-prioritizing college by any means. But we are increasing the priority of asking, ‘What are some alternative paths available that would provide meaningful opportunities to students?’” Melerine added.

Ronnie Morris, a Republican and board president, said the main focus for him was ensuring that high school diplomas were a function of students’ performance rather than their parents’ compliance. He said the board was acting on principle, rather than based on any data suggesting that large numbers of students are being blocked from graduating by the FAFSA requirement.

Some board members noted that schools should still be held responsible for giving students the information and resources they need to complete FAFSA if they wish. Students must do so if they want state merit-based scholarships or federal need-based aid.

“We have a lot of, I’ll call them, unsophisticated parents in this state who don’t understand the value of the FAFSA or are overwhelmed by the technical details,” board member Conrad Appel, a former Republican state senator, said at last week’s meeting. “So I’d hope that we can do something more forward.”

Sharon Clark, a Democrat and former public school administrator, said in an interview that while she understands not wanting to interfere with students’ graduation, Louisiana should find another way to hold schools and parents accountable for making students aware of their financial aid opportunities, as federal aid can be used for community and technical college programs and could soon apply to some short-term training programs as well.

Data from the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, found that the average FAFSA completion rate in Louisiana rose from 65 percent before the policy took effect to approximately 80 percent in 2020. And from spring 2018 to 2019, the amount of Pell Grant dollars received rose 6.6 percent.

“Being a high school leader, I know that I have parents and students who have never even heard of FAFSA. And by making it a mandatory action in schools, we are able to inform and educate parents on what FAFSA is,” she said. “Sometimes my students say, ‘Mrs. Clark, I didn’t even know that I could actually get enough money to go to community college or state college or an HBCU.”

Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, said in an email that she’s heard concern about the board’s decision from college and university presidents across the state. They view Louisiana as a model for maximizing opportunities in higher education but fear this board decision could change that.

“We know students who apply for FAFSA are more likely to attend college,” she said. And “to be work-ready today, you must have this education and training—that’s how we move more people from poverty to prosperity.”

“We agree that it’s important to have opt-out options for parents, but abandoning a proven policy is a major concern.”

‘Compassionate’ or Harmful?

Outside opinions on Louisiana’s recent roll back are also mixed. Adam Kissel, a visiting fellow in higher education reform at the Heritage Foundation, described the board’s vote as a “valuable and compassionate decision.”

“There is no one solution for a 17- or 18-year-old about what they should do next in life,” he said. “But the government putting its thumb on the scale and telling you everyone should go to college, everyone must fill out the FAFSA, manipulates your thinking.”

Kissel said that motivated students who thought they were ready for college will fill out the form on their own, but requiring all students to do so wrongfully influenced students who wouldn’t have gone to college previously. As a result, he suggested, a large number of students detoured from the full-time workforce for multiple years just to eventually drop out and take on debt without ever earning a degree.

“Seeing a bunch of money available for them helps some students who might have not gone in the first place. But it hurts other students who had good reasons not to go and are being persuaded they should go anyway,” he said. “The [states] that originally followed Louisiana’s lead should do it again and remove their mandatory FAFSA requirements.”

Louisiana’s six-year college graduation rate (55.5 percent) falls well below the national average (62.2 percent), according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. However, no controlled experiments have proven that these low completion rates are tied to higher rates of college pursuit as a result of the FAFSA completion policy.

Kim Cook, CEO of the National College Attainment Network, believes the decision is fueled “more by politics than data.”

“Louisiana’s decision to drop its FAFSA completion requirement will primarily hurt students of color and students living with low incomes in their pursuit of education after high school,” she said. “This change will inevitably reverse Louisiana’s impressive gains in FAFSA completion and the state’s number-one status in the nation for FAFSA completion among high school seniors.”

Peter Granville, a senior policy associate at the Century Foundation who studies FAFSA requirement policies, said the board’s decision represented one step forward and two steps back. He said that although he understands some of the board’s concerns, such as financial privacy, parents already had the option to opt-out of FAFSA completion via a simple waiver.

“This policy [was] a nudge more than a hard requirement,” he said. “I do think, however, it communicates the value of financial aid. I think students see the FAFSA as more important when it is part of the steps the state has laid out for graduating high school.”

And even if they did complete the application, it didn’t force students to go to college, he added.

“If a student who likes their employment options without college, completing the FAFSA doesn’t lock them in,” he said. “But the alternative is to make a big life choice without full knowledge of what you can afford.”

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