In an effort to connect students with college financial aid, some states are requiring graduating seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application. In the 2021-22 school year, Texas will become the second to require students to fill out the FAFSA, or its state version called TAFSA, in order to graduate. It follows Louisiana, which just completed its second year of the requirement.
And Illinois may soon become the third, barring a governor’s veto.
Research demonstrates that students who fill out the FAFSA are more likely to attend college, said MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance at the National College Access Network.
“Louisiana saw 6% increase in higher education enrollment after the requirement was put in place,” Keller said.
The number of students who filled out the FAFSA in Louisiana rose dramatically after the graduation requirement launched. As of June 28, the state had the highest percentage of high school seniors completing the application (78.7%). It is followed closely by Tennessee, where 77.8% of seniors completed the form.
Louisiana saw a 26% year-over-year increase of students filling out the FAFSA in 2018, the first year of the requirement. That equates into 7,778 more applications.
While filling out the FAFSA is not required to graduate in Tennessee, it is tied to the Tennessee Promise program, a last-dollar scholarship initiative that allows high school graduates to complete an associate degree or technical certification program at a community college or the Tennessee College of Applied Technology free of charge.
However, some learners and their families need help filling out the forms.
“Requiring that students file the FAFSA is a good strategy to ensure the highest number of students have the option of having funds for postsecondary education if they choose to pursue it,” said Alejandra Acosta, policy analyst for higher education at New America. “However, requiring this without implementing proper supports is probably just setting up students for a hard time or perpetuating inequalities for under-resourced students.”
Keller reiterated that point. Requiring students to complete the FAFSA in order to get their diploma means the state should provide more outreach assistance and completion workshops, she said.
Referring to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, Tom Snyder pointed out that many students don’t fill out the FAFSA because they believe they can afford college without financial aid. About 32% thought they were ineligible or might not qualify for aid, and another 28% didn’t want to take on debt.
Snyder, program director of annual reports and information at the NCES, added that another 23% did not fill out the form due to lack of information on how to do so.
What if students aren't college-bound?
The flipside of this requirement is that not every student is destined for college.
“There needs be a waiver included or an opt-out clause,” Keller said. “There are going to be certain situations where it’s not possible for college to be the post-high-school path. We certainly don’t want this to be a barrier to earning their degree.”
Sarah Pingel, senior policy analyst at for Education Commission of the States, said ECS encourages states to have the right kind of off-ramps and exemptions.
“Requiring students to complete the FAFSA may allow them to see another pathway,” Pingel said. “That would intuitively make sense. But we still don’t have enough evidence to determine if that is really what is going to happen. Just because a student fills out a FAFSA does not mean that they will magically be going to go to college.”
It may break down some barriers, though, said Caroline Altman Smith, deputy director of Kresge Foundation Education Programs. “FAFSA completion is the key to unlocking the entire college financial aid process, especially for students who are often underrepresented in higher education,” she said.
The Kresge Foundation helped support Louisiana’s FAFSA graduation requirement by offering one-on-one support for students and parents, launching a peer support group and sending phone message reminders about FAFSA completion dates to parents.
For students from low-income households and students of color, this is a critical gateway, Altman Smith said.
But, she added, "it’s also a huge bureaucratic hurdle that is very challenging for students and families to navigate. FAFSA completion requirements are very intriguing, but the jury is still out and we have yet to reach a verdict on the impact of these broad policy changes.”