States pursue FAFSA mandates to encourage college enrollment

A number of state lawmakers are introducing legislation that would require high school seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or state aid application as a necessary step to graduate, The Wall Street Journal reports. 

Supporters of the mandates say compelling students to fill out the forms before graduating allows them to explore postsecondary options and access billions of aid dollars that would otherwise go untapped. Opponents, however, assert that families would be forced to share sensitive financial information, and the requirement would add a pre-graduation hurdle for high school seniors. 

But advocates of requiring students to file the FAFSA—completed by just 55.6 percent of the nation’s high school seniors last year—stand firm in their belief that it would only open more doors for low-income students to pursue higher education. Adding urgency, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have slowed FAFSA completion, with the largest declines occurring at high schools serving many low-income students and students of color.

Related: Pandemic relief bill simplifies FAFSA, broadens access to financial aid >

“Families are hurting, students are struggling, and financial hardships are all too common nowadays. Access to education is such an essential yet sensitive issue that needs to be addressed right now,” Maryland State Sen. Arthur Ellis (D) told the Journal.

At the very least, proponents say, requiring students to pursue financial aid would open up a dialogue between students seeking exemptions and their guidance counselors; at best, it would lead to a more educated workforce and stronger economy. 

Louisiana results offer inspiration as states consider similar measures 

In the 2017-18 school year, Louisiana became the first state in the country to require high school students to complete the FAFSA before they graduate. The state mandate has proven to be a success, with 77 percent of high school seniors completing the FAFSA the first year the mandate was instituted, compared with 57.2 percent the year prior. 

Illinois is set to implement a similar requirement this year, and Texas will follow suit in 2021-22. Under the mandates, students who are older than 18 or are undocumented, typically can opt out.

Looking ahead, the Journal says proposals requiring financial aid form completion are likely to be introduced or already under consideration in at least eight states, including Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, and Oklahoma. In California, where 54 percent of last year’s high school seniors filed state financial aid forms or the FAFSA, Governor Gavin Newsom included a similar measure in his 2021-22 budget proposal.

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