What if your state were as progressive as Louisiana? Well, that should get you to sit up and take notice since Louisiana is not usually the state that other states look to for education leadership. And yet, here it is: Beginning with Louisiana’s graduating class of 2018, all public high school seniors must apply for financial aid for college in order to graduate from high school (unless a student submits an opt-out form signed by a parent).
Louisiana students can meet this new requirement, adopted by its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, by applying either to the federal government though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (widely known as FAFSA) or to the Louisiana’s state office that provides assistance with obtaining both state and federal aid. According to the Education Commission of the States, Louisiana is the only state with this sort of high school graduation requirement.
An Education Week article by Catherine Gewertz explains that, each year, only about 44 percent of public high school seniors in Louisiana apply for financial aid. The national average is about 55 percent.
If Louisiana could get its rate of applications up to the national average, those students would produce about $54 million in revenue for higher education systems in the form of state and federal aid, according to FAFSA. In other words, students would get financial assistance to attend college, but colleges would get the government dollars that students would bring with them to the campus.
The article points out that, according to the research, “failure to complete financial-aid forms is one of the most powerful stumbling blocks on the road to college.” To be sure, filling out the forms is not straightforward, and a lot of specific personal financial information is required. For many families, the application is daunting—no matter how many times the government claims to have made it simpler.
For that reason, I have always recommended that families use a reasonably priced service (available by telephone) to fill out and submit the form, even though many schools have workshops of all sorts to help families with the process. By the way, Louisiana intends to make school-based help available by providing some funding to organizations that offer that kind of assistance, according to the article.
It is time to take a look at how your school district and your high school address the problem of applying for financial aid, especially if you do not live in Louisiana:
- All parents: Ask your school board if the board has a policy on whether completing financial aid applications is an important part of your school district’s definition of “college readiness.” Does the policy include providing help for high school seniors and their families in completing those applications? Does the board require that kind of assistance to be available districtwide? Ask the board to discuss Louisiana’s new graduation requirement and to consider whether the board might want to make a similar policy for your school district (that could be done regardless of whether your state has a Louisiana-type policy). This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.
- High school parents: Whether your school district does or does not have a board policy on completing financial aid applications, ask your principal what financial aid workshops are available at the high school. Who is running those workshops—school staff or staff from outside organizations? What if students and parents need more help than those workshops can provide? Ask the principal and guidance/college counselors to discuss any procedures for advising seniors individually about the financial aid process. How are parents brought into or made aware of the information from those individual sessions? Are you satisfied that, as parents, you are getting the help you need in understanding and completing financial aid applications?