How Do You Get Low-Income Students to Apply for Federal College Aid? Make It a Law
A Louisiana law requiring students to complete an application for federal financial aid in order to graduate high school almost entirely closed the gap in college aid applications between students at low- and high-poverty schools.
A new study by the Century Foundation suggests Louisiana's model—which will be mirrored to different degrees in policies in Illinois and Texas and proposed in a dozen other states—could help keep low-income students on track to pay for their postsecondary education. While student financial aid has increased in many states in the last several years, students in high-poverty schools are less likely to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which helps students access billions of dollars in federal loans, grants, and work-study arrangements, as well as qualify for additional aid from states and colleges.
Peter Granville, the study author and a senior policy associate at the Century Foundation, found that so far no Louisiana high school student has been denied a high school diploma for failing to complete a FAFSA application, but the state provided nearly 370 in-person workshops and support services for school districts throughout the state from 2017 to 2019. Within a year of Louisiana implementing the FAFSA as a graduation requirement, the gap in FAFSA completion between high- and low-income schools closed by 87 percent.
"When you look at the most recent year, the class of 2019, schools with the most low-income students were slightly outperforming those with the least number of low-income students," Granville said. "I think that's an exciting development, when we think about broader efforts to get federal financial aid, but also state and institutional financial aid into the hands of the students who need it most, because so often this money is left on the table, usually because in the past [the form] is just so complex and it's hard for a lot of families to understand."
Financial aid applications have fallen this spring across the board since the pandemic hit, with income and racial gaps in application rates widening. Louisiana put its FAFSA graduation requirement on hold this year because of the pandemic-related school closures, and saw one of the largest drops in FAFSA applications for 2020, more than 6 percent.
"It's so much harder for counselors and professionals to reach the students or walk them through the FAFSA when you can't do that in person," Granville said. "Much of Louisiana's approach involves a lot of in-person workshops, which is, I think, a very good approach to this policy. But one drawback is in an unexpected pandemic, it's so much harder to do any strategy to assist students, but especially one that's based around workshops."
Illinois and Texas are still in the process of implementing their FAFSA policies for high school graduation, and there are about a dozen other states that have previously proposed similar legislation around financial aid, but so far the study did not find any state models for focusing FAFSA support online.
Chart Source: Century Foundation