Opinion

Make Financial Aid Process Mandatory and Help Students Along the Way

The State of Louisiana requires any student who is applying for college and seeking aid to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and the results are compelling.  Two other states, Illinois and Texas, have followed suit.  Other states — if not the federal government — should now make it mandatory, exempting those who wish to forego aid altogether and protecting those whose immigration status puts them at risk for deportation.

It is irrefutable that students who complete a four-year college undergraduate degree have a much greater opportunity for advancement than those who don’t.  In fact, our transition to a knowledge-based economy is excluding those who do not have the training to participate. Wage growth is stagnant for those without a college education. 

According to a projection from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, as of last year, 68 percent of all jobs in Massachusetts (2.4 million jobs) required some postsecondary training beyond high school in 2018.  In New York, it was 63 percent; California, 61 percent.

Another major challenge is the racial disparity in college attendance.  In 2017, 41 percent of white 18-to-24-year-olds were enrolled in college, while African-American and Latinos each represented only 36 percent enrolled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

So, how do we know mandating completion of FAFSA will help this situation?

The data is overwhelming.

The National College Access Network states that approximately 19.8 million U.S. students completed a FAFSA for 2015-16. An increase of 500,000 filers nationally would yield $1.4 billion in additional Pell Grants annually and 172,500 additional postsecondary degrees per year.  The FAFSA, in fact, is a requirement to receive a Pell Grant, of which over half of high school graduates are eligible.

The Network also states that, “90 percent of high school seniors who complete FAFSA attend college directly from high school, compared to just 55 percent of FAFSA noncompleters” and that “every additional $1,000 in grant aid per student increases postsecondary persistence rates by 4 percentage points.”

But for all the advancement and success that FAFSA brings, students shy away from completing it. Some are intimidated by it. Others cannot see the process through as they are not able to obtain key salary verifications from their parents, which can stop the process in its tracks.

According to an analysis by NerdWallet, some $2.6 billion was left “on the table” by students eligible for Pell Grants who did not complete the FAFSA. At a time when everyone is concerned with the rising cost of higher education, this is a tremendous waste. 

We feel it is incumbent on either the federal government to adopt a Louisiana-style program or, failing that, for the remaining 47 states without such a program to adopt a similar approach. 

A federal effort would be preferred because there are problems with the FAFSA process that states can try to accommodate for, but cannot correct.

The form is vexing for even professionals to complete and should be simplified; the verification process should be made easier, perhaps by leveraging technological advances through greater importation of tax and payroll data. 

Because the process is so difficult, Louisiana didn’t simply mandate completion; it provided the supports that were critical to students actually doing it. It created counseling to help students through the process and a tracking system so that the state could look at completion in real time.

By July 1 of last year, 84 percent of public high school seniors in Louisiana submitted the FAFSA, an increase of 17 percentage points from the previous year. Seldom does a public or educational policy change have such dramatic results.

It is unconscionable that students seeking higher education are turned away for lack of resources when, in some instances, it was available to them all along.

Let’s acknowledge that in FAFSA we have a flawed process, both intimidating and complex. We must put the supports in place for completion and require that everyone participate.

 

Mildred Garcia is president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.  Ramon S. Torrecilha is the president of Westfield State University in Massachusetts. 

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