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To Graduate, File a Fafsa, More High School Seniors Are Told

More states are adding a graduation requirement for high school seniors: filling out the college financial aid form known as the Fafsa.

This summer, Texas and Illinois joined Louisiana in requiring that seniors complete the lengthy form, formally called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to get a diploma. California and Indiana are said to be mulling similar moves.

Why make teenagers fill out the form, which rivals an income tax return for its ability to inspire dread? Students who complete it are much more likely to continue their studies after high school, according to the National College Access Network, a nonprofit group that promotes post-high school education.

The correlation is particularly strong for low-income students, who stand to benefit most from financial aid, said Jessica Thompson, director of policy and planning at the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group.

The Fafsa is the gateway for federal student aid, including grants and low-cost loans, as well as aid offered by states and many colleges. The financial website Nerdwallet estimated that the class of 2018 missed out on $2.6 billion in Pell grants — need-based federal aid that doesn’t have to be repaid — because eligible students didn’t submit the form.

For the 2019-20 school year, eligible students can qualify for Pell grants of up to $6,195.

“It’s a good thing,” Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at the website, said of the trend toward requiring the Fafsa for graduation.

Fafsa completion rates vary by state. The average for high school seniors is estimated at 57 percent, according to an analysis of federal data by the college access network.

Louisiana was the first state to require high school seniors to complete the form, beginning with the 2017-18 school year. The state is now at the top of the list for completions, with nearly 79 percent of the state’s seniors completing the form, the access network found. The rate was 44 percent for the graduating class of 2013, said John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education.

The requirement was adopted after several years of study, as part of an effort to promote educational and career opportunities for the state’s students, Mr. White said. The policy allows for waivers depending on a student’s circumstances.

“We made the Fafsa an opt-out situation,” he said, “rather than opt-in.”

Student advocates say the move toward a Fafsa requirement is generally helpful, as long as schools provide training and support for high school counselors, and help for students and families in tackling the form.

The ability to opt out is also crucial so the policies don’t become a barrier to graduation, said MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance with the college access network. A student who, for instance, plans to join the military immediately upon graduation should not have to fill out the Fafsa, she said.

The new rules in Texas and Illinois will allow students to request exemptions or waivers. The Illinois policy is set to take effect in the 2020-21 school year, while Texas’ will begin a year later.

“It is a very well-intentioned attempt to close a gap we see,” Ms. Thompson said.

Overall Fafsa filing rates, taking into account students who are already in college as well as high school students, have risen in recent years, according to the college access network. But a slight drop in the filing rate for high school seniors in the class of 2019 was “discouraging,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the access network. It may be, he said, that a strong economy is moving more students to go directly into the work force instead of going to college or pursuing technical degrees.

In recent years, the federal government has taken steps to simplify the Fafsa, and to make it easier to complete. The form may now be filled out on phones, using a mobile app or a mobile-friendly website. And the Fafsa now uses information from older tax returns so families’ financial information is more readily available when they tackle the form.

Many students and families use the Internal Revenue Service’s online data retrieval tool to quickly transfer financial information from their federal tax returns onto the Fafsa form. But the recent federal tax overhaul created new schedules that the tool does not yet recognize, according to a letter sent to the Education Department and copied to the I.R.S. late last week by Senator Maggie Hassan, eight other Democratic senators and Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

The senators asked for assurance that any mistakes would not subject students to a more “arduous” process that might discourage them from seeking financial help.

In an emailed statement, the Education Department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, noted that the comment period on the 2020-21 Fafsa ended Aug. 2 and that the department would “thoroughly” review comments and make appropriate adjustments to the upcoming Fafsa form.

“The department’s goal, like always, is to ensure that Fafsa applicants are not negatively affected by changes to the Fafsa precipitated by events, such as changes to tax laws,” Ms. Hill said.

A spokesman for the I.R.S. didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Here are some questions and answers about the Fafsa:

When can I file the Fafsa?

The new form, for the 2020-21 academic year, will become available on Oct. 1.

Financial aid experts generally recommend filing the form as early as possible. Some state and institutional scholarships are first-come, first-served, so filing early maximizes your chances of receiving money for your education.

Once I submit the Fafsa, what happens?

The Education Department says it typically processes digital submissions in three to five days. Then you’ll get a student aid report summarizing the information in your Fafsa and indicating how much money your family is expected to contribute to your education. The actual aid offer will come directly from the colleges to which you apply.

Some students may be selected for “verification,” which means they must submit extra proof — such as a tax transcript from the I.R.S. — to document the income they reported on the Fafsa.

Where can I get help completing the Fafsa?

High school seniors should start with their school counselors, Ms. Keller said. Many schools offer workshops or one-on-one help for students seeking assistance with the form. Students who are already in college can check with their college’s financial aid office.

The Education Department offers advice and answers to frequently asked questions on its website.


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