What happens when states mandate FAFSA completion?

Hoping to create a college-going mindset and increase students’ access to financial aid, a growing number of states are requiring high school students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) before they can graduate. The policies appear to provide an initial jolt to FAFSA filing rates, but the degree attainment implications remain unclear. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the FAFSA mandates also have sparked concerns about the amount of effort required to chase down reluctant families.

Increasing awareness of, access to crucial aid

Proponents of the push to require FAFSA completion point to the potential enrollment benefits when students know about available aid. They also note the consequences of the nation’s current FAFSA completion rate, which was 57% for the high school class of 2021. A recent analysis from the National College Attainment Network showed the financial implications, estimating that the class of 2021 left $3.75 billion in federal aid unclaimed, or an average of $4,477 per student.

Tying diplomas to FAFSA completion

In the 2017-18 academic year, Louisiana became the first U.S. state to require high school seniors to complete the FAFSA in order to graduate (students may opt out if they meet certain criteria). That year, Louisiana saw a 26% jump in FAFSA filings. The growth rate has since slowed: as of March 18 this year, 50.6% of the state’s high school seniors had completed the FAFSA, a 4.1% increase compared with 2021.

Several states have followed in Louisiana’s footsteps, including Illinois, which implemented a FAFSA completion mandate last year. Texas’s mandate took effect this year, and the state has seen a 26.2% increase in FAFSA completions compared with last year; 51.5% of seniors have completed the form. Alabama, also in its first year, has seen similar gains, with 17.9% more high school seniors completing the application thus far in 2022 than in 2021. New Hampshire will follow suit in 2023-24, and the Chronicle reports that numerous state legislatures are considering implementing FAFSA requirements.

Mixed reception absent clear results

While states with FAFSA mandates have seen application completions increase—a proven driver of college enrollment—more data is needed to say whether requiring FAFSA completion before high school graduation actually leads to stronger enrollment and degree completion.

Ellie Bruecker, a senior research associate at the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, says that after seeing data from Louisiana, she “would not call this a success at improving college enrollment at this point,” adding that simply filling out the FAFSA “doesn’t tell you whether college is affordable for you.” That’s a more nuanced assessment that needs to take into account available institutional aid, she says.

High school counselors and college access advocates have voiced concerns about unintended consequences, especially the mandates’ potential to sap scarce counseling resources. Some say they are spending an inordinate amount of time chasing down families who have no intention of pursuing college, are fearful of providing personal information to the government, or object to the mandate.

“This gets us into some very contentious situations,” Sara Urquidez, executive director of the Dallas-based Academic Success Program, told the Chronicle. Urquidez says the time spent repeatedly calling families “has come at the expense of being able to help students with college applications, essays, financial-aid letters.” The FAFSA is just one piece of a larger puzzle, she says. “Completing the FAFSA is not what makes college affordable. Completing an admissions application for an institution that makes sense for a student’s financial situation, and then getting the financial-aid award that makes sense for the family, is what makes college affordable.”

Urquidez acknowledges that the mandate has prompted some helpful conversations with parents who might otherwise not have understood how the FAFSA could benefit their specific situation. Chandra Scott, executive director of Alabama Possible, agrees. “What this policy has done is elevated it for parents,” she says. “Every high-school mother or father looks over that graduation checklist.. I feel it’s changing narratives in homes.”

Several experts told the Chronicle that states must take a holistic approach if they want their FAFSA requirements to succeed. Increasing the number of high school counselors, training them, helping families complete FAFSAs, and improving communication around FAFSA requirements all could help support success.

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