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 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. Many colleges and universities also use the completed form to determine the financial aid they will provide to students.

Jennifer Akins, McKinney ISD’s senior director of guidance and counseling, said the district plans to increase the number of financial aid information sessions offered for parents and students. Collin College also plans to offer more assistance for parents, students and high school counselors.

Cindy Monogue, a college adviser at McKinney Boyd High School, estimates about half of MISD students complete federal financial aid forms each year. 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.

Akins said the district expects the new law to yield positive results.

“There’s obviously a benefit to students and families to have access to higher education, and financial tools are a part of that journey,” Akins said. “There is a good body of research that shows that students that complete a FAFSA or participate in other types of financial planning are a lot more likely to make a smooth transition into a post-secondary environment.”

Law to require applications

McKinney resident Mariah Zagorsky has a daughter at McKinney High School and a son in college.

“So many families don’t realize there is money available,” Zagorsky said. “In that aspect, I would think [the state] would have made it more required by high school [students]. But a law? I was kind of surprised.”

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 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.

Some families may see the application as a hassle or a burden, but the pros outweigh the cons, said Alan Pixley, district 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.”

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. Booker said he 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.

Financial aid assistance

Zagorsky said the application can be frustrating for someone who has never completed one, she said.

To assist families, MISD offers two college financial aid nights a year as well as workshops on federal aid applications. Monogue said the next workshop will be held at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at Boyd High School.

MISD also recommends the use of various resources, including Naviance, a software program with college and career planning tools for students.

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. The college will also host a workshop for high school counselors Oct. 18.

Pixley said Collin College is ready to help districts and students fill out the federal forms because “we want residents of Collin County to be successful.”