A new state law could help. Included in House Bill 3, which focused on school finance reform, is a requirement that all high school students fill out and submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, prior to graduating. Current high school sophomores who graduate in 2022 will be the first class to fall under the new law.
“People feel that if you complete the FAFSA, you’d be more inclined to want to go to college [and] to learn more about financial aid,” said Jerel Booker, assistant commissioner for college readiness and success with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “A lot of people feel the biggest reason ... students aren’t going is because of costs.”
Students who apply for federal aid could become eligible for grants, scholarships, loans, study-abroad aid, work-study jobs or tax benefits, according to the FAFSA website. Many colleges and universities also use the completed form to determine the financial aid they will provide to students.
The new law will make the submission a requirement for all Texas students. Students will also have the option to fill out the Texas Application for State Financial Aid, or TASFA, instead. Those who choose not to apply for either federal or state aid must submit a waiver signed by a parent or school counselor.
“When students complete their FAFSA, they are building their independence and solidifying their steps to building their future,” Comal ISD Director of Academic Counseling Tiffany Newkirk said. “Studies have shown that 90% of students that complete the FAFSA proceed directly to college, and there is a huge push for all school districts to make sure they are preparing students to be college-, career-and-military-ready, or CCMR.”
Part of a push by CISD during the 2018-19 school year, the Comal Compass program is being developed as a prescriptive process that will allow students and parents to make well-informed decisions to help build a student’s CCMR, Newkirk said.
Through Comal Compass, students will have access to a digital toolbox that tracks their resumes, portfolios, personality and interest assessments, transcripts and more.
“We are building an effective and useful scaffolding for our parents and students,” Newkirk said. “The school counselors and the academic career advisers visit with students about the FAFSA, review transcript information, answer questions about the college application process and any other information that the student needs. We will be folding this accountability piece into our Comal Compass scope and sequence. We have the framework but are waiting on specifics from the TEA to finalize this process.”
LAW TO REQUIRE APPLICATIONS
The Texas Education Agency updated the FAFSA to make sure people would submit the form, Booker said. Mandating the application also allows the state to spend time, effort and money to track it, he said. Louisiana was the first state to pass a similar law, called the Financial Aid Access Policy. It began with the graduating class of 2018.
Louisiana officials said they have already seen benefits. In 2018, the number of high school graduates in Louisiana who enrolled in college hit an all-time high of 25,083 students, according to an email from Sydni Dunn, press secretary with the Louisiana Department of Education. That number represented an increase of about 1,500 graduates from the previous year.
“We cannot definitively say these gains are a result of our Financial Aid Access Policy,” Dunn said in the email. “But we are hopeful the policy has positively influenced college enrollment and will continue to do so.”
Much like Texas, Louisiana requires all public high school students to complete and submit either a federal or state aid application. Students may also opt out with a letter, form or waiver. If students in Louisiana do not complete one of these steps, they will not graduate with a high school diploma, Dunn said in the email.
“A high percentage of students completing the FAFSA and securing their place at a post-secondary institution demonstrates the district’s intentional, educational approach and personalized services for students and families,” Newkirk said. “We are in the business of education, and if we have a large portion of our student body attending the postsecondary institutions of their choosing and being successful, then we have done our job.”
HOW TO ENFORCE THE LAW
It is too early to tell exactly how the Texas Education Agency will enforce this law or track which students do not complete the application, said Booker, who expects Texas’ process to resemble Louisiana’s.
A Texas Education Agency advisory committee will present plans to the state Legislature about tracking and enforcing the law by January 2021. Federal aid applications are available every year beginning Oct. 1, according to the Federal Student Aid website.
“Because of the variation in state and college deadlines, it is highly recommended that you fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can after Oct. 1 to ensure that you do not miss out on available aid,” the website states.
Dunn recommends Texas counselors offer “clear communication and strong partnerships” in implementing this new law. Dunn said the Louisiana Department of Education created additional resources and events to help.•“Each of our high school campuses hosts financial aid night during both the fall and spring semesters,” Newkirk said.
“We are also a district that is fortunate enough to have a position at each high school dedicated specifically to help parents and students with FAFSA, scholarships and postsecondary applications. Any parents that need information about these topics or have questions regarding postsecondary options can contact a CISD academic career advisor for assistance.”