This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Here’s an idea worth pursuing: Make every U.S. high school student complete a FAFSA before graduating, to move more students toward college.
Here are two more: Hire more school counselors, and simplify the forms for federal aid.
As part of a larger movement to bring college-admissions requirements to students, rather than making students seek them out, three states — Illinois, Louisiana and Texas — have adopted laws requiring students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Others are considering similar measures, and the time for a national measure has come, even though challenges remain.
The need for young people to receive some kind of postsecondary education is more important than ever, as a greater percentage of occupations require some advanced education. It’s critical that the FAFSA be accessible, to help students pay for postsecondary education. Ninety percent of FAFSA completers enroll in college, compared with 55 percent of non-completers.
Even if students don’t enroll right away, they will be armed with the knowledge that funds exist to help them pay for higher education.
Louisiana offers a compelling test case. Before becoming the first state to make completing the FAFSA mandatory in the 2017-18 school year, its completion rate was just 50 percent, below the then-national average of 55 percent. Since making the change, Louisiana now leads all states in the FAFSA completion rate, at 82.6 percent.
School districts like the 7,800-student Santa Maria Joint High School District in California are considering a similar measure. The district says it isn’t seeing enough students attend college. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of its students don’t complete the FAFSA, according to school board member Diana Perez. The school is modeling its proposal on Louisiana. California, Indiana, Michigan, Indiana and the District of Columbia are considering similar policies. Kudos to these states and locales for taking the initiative.
It’s important to note, though, that the road to a national plan isn’t all smooth sailing.
For instance, some common myths hurt voluntary FAFSA completion: “college is too expensive for me,” or “only students with good grades get financial aid.” There’s also the real problem that those students who could benefit the most from filling out the FAFSA often find it the most difficult to complete. Making it mandatory provides the kind of nudge that students need to overcome these perceived and real barriers.
It’s also important that students be given the support they need to complete their forms successfully and accurately, and that they feel safe doing so, to ensure that this requirement accomplishes its original goal: increasing access to college.
Asking families to shoulder this requirement alone is not the solution, as this task may be more difficult for families who most need federal aid. Students may be at sea when completing the FAFSA if they need documents from multiple employers or institutions, if their parents work multiple jobs or are unavailable, if they experience a language barrier or if there is no internet access at home.
For many students from low-income households, FAFSA verification is another hurdle. While the review process is designed to prevent fraud, households that report lower incomes are disproportionately selected for verification. This perpetuates a stereotype that low-income families are more likely than middle- and higher-income families to commit fraud when, in fact, the recent college admissions scandal suggests that this is far from true.
Because verification requires additional paperwork for students with access to fewer resources, the process can be so overwhelming that it causes some students to abandon their applications altogether. This phenomenon is known as “verification melt”: between 20 and 30 percent of students eligible for Pell Grants who are selected for verification do not matriculate to college.
It is also important that any FAFSA graduation requirement not place an undue burden on families or schools. Passing a law, by itself, doesn’t give schools the resources they need to comply with it. We need to be careful that we aren’t simply telling schools to do more work without giving them the capacity to undertake it.
We propose two solutions to these challenges. The first is to simplify the FAFSA. With more than 100 questions, often requiring detailed tax return data, the FAFSA can act as a hurdle to low-income and first-generation college students.
While it is commonly agreed that the FAFSA’s financial reporting should be easier, we recommend three specific changes to the process. To make the verification process more equitable, we should expand data-sharing between the U.S. Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service so that students can verify their need through their participation in other means-tested federal programs. This proposal is touted by organizations like the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Institutions should also use standard verification forms for one-time completion so that high school seniors who have applied to multiple colleges and are flagged for verification do not have to comply with each college’s process in order to clear up the issues and receive their aid offers. There should be a document clearinghouse that both students and institutions can use to compare and understand information they receive from different schools.
Second, we recommend offering more support to schools so that FAFSA completers get the most out of their application. At the school level, we need more college counselors to give students one-on-one guidance as they complete their applications. We also need to provide education for practitioners, such as college counselors, so that they are equipped with the latest knowledge about the FAFSA’s role in the college-admissions process. We don’t need to rely on government agencies for this. We can connect schools to quality community-based organizations that already specialize in this type of work and that can help to educate practitioners. Public/private partnerships can support students, families and schools to ensure that efforts to expand college access truly include all students.
As CEOs of college-access organizations, we applaud and encourage states’ emerging efforts to expand the number of students who fill out the FAFSA, take the SAT and complete other college-access requirements. However, we also see in our daily work how important it is for these efforts to be accompanied by adequate supports for students, schools and families. These policies are as important as they are necessary. It is no less necessary to ensure that they create opportunities, not barriers, for students seeking access to college.