Completing the FAFSA is a Good Idea, and, Increasingly, Required for Graduation
Three states have gotten proactive about ensuring their students take advantage of federal financial aid
Around 70% of undergraduates in America receive federal financial aid. The first step in that process is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The problem is that many students—36% in 2017—who are eligible for aid never fill out the form. As a result, they miss out on grants and loans that make it easier to attend and finish college.
FAFSA completion is positively associated with enrollment in college. And a few states have gotten proactive about ensuring their students take advantage of federal student aid.
Last summer, Texas passed a bill making FAFSA completion a requirement of high school graduation beginning in the 2021-22 school year. A few days later Illinois followed suit, bringing to three the number of states requiring students to apply for aid. Louisiana has had the requirement since 2018. Illinois’ law goes into effect in the 2020-21 school year.
“This law will help give students the freedom to choose the pathway that’s best for them—not the pathway they’re forced down because nobody gave them the information to explore their options,” Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a statement.
Leaders in both states hope to see the kind of success Louisiana has had with its FAFSA law. Since passing it, Louisiana has led the nation with an 82% completion rate in 2019. Tennessee followed close behind, at 80%, after implementing a policy requiring FAFSA completion to qualify for its Tennessee Promise scholarships.
The FAFSA completion gains in Louisiana stand in stark contrast to the national rates. According to Bill DeBaun at the National College Access Network, approximately 62% of high school seniors filled out a FAFSA in 2019.
“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,” DeBaun told Inside Higher Ed. “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.”
Any positive impact on that cycle is welcome when nearly 40% of students are not taking advantage of federal student aid.
Why would so many leave financial aid money on the table?
For starters, the FAFSA form is not fun. It’s long, as Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander often points out. And while most students opt to fill out the form’s more than 100 questions online, many are unprepared to answer questions about their personal and family income. That can make the process much longer than the “less than an hour” that Federal Student Aid says it takes. The good news is that President Donald Trump recently signed new legislation that will simplify the form for many families. (It has not been announced when those changes will take effect.)
It’s not uncommon for schools and community-based organizations that work with students to hold FAFSA workshops where experienced professionals provide guidance and motivation. But the decision of Louisiana, Texas, and Illinois to take an active role in requiring students to fill out the form could lead more states to get more involved in their students’ college financial planning—and get more underrepresented students into college.
“I think that the requirement to complete the FAFSA is a good one,” Isaac Torres, the director of high school, college, and career success at the Central Texas nonprofit E3 Alliance, told NPR. “For an increasing number of low-income, first-generation students, it’s going to be that critical first step that gets them to enroll full time and complete their degree on time.”