The cost of college continues to increase, but too often, financial aid officials say, students fail to tap into existing resources, resulting in money left on the table.

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 submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or a similar state aid form, prior to graduating. Current Plano ISD sophomores who graduate in 2022 will be among the first classes in the state 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. Many colleges and universities also use the completed form to determine the financial aid they will provide to students.

The new law will make FAFSA submission a requirement for all Texas students. Students will also have the option of filling out the Texas Application for State Financial Aid instead.

Those who choose not to apply for either federal or state aid must submit a waiver signed by a parent or school counselor.

Law to require applications

One of the thoughts behind the law is that students who apply for federal financial aid are more likely to want to go to college and will be more aware of their financial options, Booker said. Mandating the application also allows the state to better track applications, 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.

“Texas is interested sort of in seeing that [growth] as well,” said Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. “We have really good research evidence that shows that when students complete the FAFSA and receive more access to more ways to pay for college, more need-based aid, they’re much more likely to enroll in college and complete.”

Some families may see the application as a hassle or a burden, but the pros outweigh the cons, said Alan Pixley, director of financial aid and veterans services at Collin College.

“Each person’s situation is unique,” Pixley said. “The only way to know if you qualify for something is to apply, and it’s free to do.”

Education and FAFSA

Requiring students to complete federal financial aid applications is only the first step, according to Baker.

“I do think that when we’re talking about the entire state, that there’s going to have to be a systematic effort to helping students and their families navigate completion of the FAFSA,” Baker said.

The Louisiana Department of Education created additional resources and events for parents and students to learn about financial aid opportunities. A Texas Education Agency advisory committee will be formed in fall 2020 and will present plans to the state Legislature by January 2021 about tracking and enforcing the law.

“We have pretty good evidence that when students and their families are helped with completing the FAFSA, that by getting more grant aid, they are less likely to take out the larger amounts of debt,” Baker said. “These types of policies have the potential to help students with their debt burden.”

Young Invincibles, a South Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for the economic security of young adults, is interested in helping fill the gaps in education and support for students completing financial aid forms, said Aurora Harris, the organization’s southern deputy director of partnerships and organizing.

“We see it as a really great first step,” Harris said. “But we also see that there needs to be a lot of support on the ground and in schools, sort of helping students understand the FAFSA form and to get rid of a lot of those structural barriers that are in place, particularly for first-generation students and for students of color.”

Young Invincibles plans to approach FAFSA education by pairing existing one-on-one conversations with counselors and community organizations with a digital tool called the Connector.

“Any person in the state can go on our website, get on the Connector tool, and schedule an appointment with someone who can actually give them that in-person assistance and actually help them complete the application,” Harris said.

The advocacy group also plans to continue educating young adults on affordability and debt. This ranges from understanding how to read financial aid reward letters to selecting and repaying loans.

While Young Invincibles has initiated these practices, it is hoping similar work will be done at the state level, Harris said.

“We’re looking to figure out what’s our role here,” Harris said. “How can we sort of put the partners in the room that need to be there to make something like this happen?”

Financial aid assistance

FAFSA forms are available every year beginning Oct. 1, according to the federal student aid website.

PISD plans to monitor FAFSA applications closely this year, said Jana Hancock, director of guidance and family education services at PISD. The district is also preparing to expand current FAFSA and financial aid parent meetings and workshops. Collin College advisers will continue to be available at PISD high school and senior high campuses.

Collin College will host a financial aid night Nov. 13 to help parents and students fill out federal forms. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Preston Ridge Campus in Frisco.

Pixley said Collin College is ready to help districts and students fill out the federal forms.

“We want residents of Collin County to be successful,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the Connector tool by Young Invincibles.