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 will 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. 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 of filling 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.
Law to require applications
The Texas Education Agency mandated the federal aid application 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 U.S. state to pass a similar law, called the Financial Aid Access Policy. It began with the graduating class of 2018, and 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 from the previous year of about 1,500 graduates.
“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.”
Louisiana already 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.
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.”
Lewisville ISD Director of Counseling Monya Crow said the district is working on a plan to help support students and families as the new requirement goes into effect.
Katherine Sells, president of the Lewisville ISD board of trustees, echoed that the district will do everything it can to help fulfill the new requirement.
“Completing the FAFSA has long been something LISD and districts across the state work with students and families to support,” Sells said. “Our district will develop a plan to meet the requirements of the law in spite of this being another unfunded mandate from the state.”
How to enforce the law
It is too early to tell exactly how the Texas Education Agency will enforce this law or how it will track which students do or do not complete the application. Booker said he expects Texas’ process to resemble Louisiana’s.
“States tend to have a habit of copying each other when something shows success,” Booker said.
A Texas Education Agency advisory committee will present plans to the state Legislature about tracking and enforcing the law by January 2021. The committee is expected to meet this winter.
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 stated.
Anna Herod contributed to this report.