States Requiring FAFSA for High School Seniors

The memorable moments in a student’s high school graduation might include walking across the stage to accept a diploma and celebrating with family at a graduation party.

In a growing number of states, getting to those moments won’t happen before gathering up the family’s financial documents and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

The FAFSA is required for a student to be eligible for federal student loans or grants to pay for college, for federal work-study and often to qualify for state and institutional scholarships. To boost FAFSA completion rates and encourage college enrollment, the following states require all high school seniors to submit the FAFSA in order to graduate, according to the National College Attainment Network:

— Louisiana

— Texas

— Illinois

— Alabama

This requirement will also be new for high school graduates in California — who are mandated to file either the FAFSA or California Dream Act Application — starting in the 2022-2023 academic year, and in New Hampshire starting with the 2023-2024 academic year, according to the network, a nonprofit organization that advocates for educational equity and urges the policy requirement.

“I think it’s going to continue to spread,” says Ellie Bruecker, senior research associate at Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation. “We’ve seen a lot of states enacting legislation requiring their higher education departments or commissions to study this.”

Some states are making it a priority rather than a requirement. Colorado, for instance, established a grant program for school districts to opt into as a way to promote FAFSA completion. Meanwhile, Maryland plans to strongly encourage completion by assisting students with the process rather than introducing a statewide requirement.

[Read: FAFSA Deadlines You Should Know.]

How Does the FAFSA Completion Requirement Work?

The requirement may look different in each state or district.

In the Ascension Parish School District in Louisiana, for example, parents of seniors receive an acknowledgement at the beginning of the school year to explain the requirement and provide information about the FAFSA. After completing the form, a student is required to forward the confirmation email to his or her school contact, where it is printed and organized alphabetically.

If it’s not fulfilled in the weeks or months leading up to graduation, a student is first contacted, followed if necessary by an email and eventually a phone call to a parent, says Shannon Hattier, a career coach at East Ascension High School.

“In the years that we’ve had it, I don’t know of anyone who did not graduate because they did not complete the requirement,” she says.

A student may opt out of the requirement for any reason. In most cases, those who do plan to serve in the military, have a job lined up after graduation or have parents who refuse to provide necessary financial information, Bruecker says.

For undocumented students or students with undocumented parents who are ineligible to complete the FAFSA, she adds, some states offer an alternative financial form to fulfill the requirement.

Some states are not only implementing a FAFSA completion policy, but are also following through with resources and training to help district leaders and counselors understand the requirement and support students and parents, says Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at NCAN.

[Read: 5 Myths About Parent Information on the FAFSA.]

Implications of the FAFSA Completion Requirement

Completing the FAFSA can help students make more informed decisions about whether and where they will attend college. According to NCAN, the current FAFSA completion rate nationwide for high school seniors is 50.1%, a number that has steadily declined over the last few years.

Students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to attend college, a fact that is particularly true for students in the lowest socioeconomic quintile, for whom FAFSA completion is associated with a 127% increase in immediate college enrollment.

“The ultimate goal is not just to have students fill out the FAFSA and then not go to college,” Bruecker says. “The ultimate goal is for students to fill out the FAFSA and for more of them to enroll in college because of it.”

There is not “good” evidence that college enrollment rose as a result of the requirement, but it has been shown to increase FAFSA completion rates in Illinois, Texas and Louisiana, she adds.

It is difficult to understand the impact of mandating FAFSA completion, as many states implemented the policies either right before or during the coronavirus pandemic, says Carrie Warick, NCAN’s director of policy and advocacy.

“When we started getting to a point where we could build some longitudinal data, then we ran into a pandemic, where a whole lot of students didn’t return for reasons that were far greater than when or whether they filled out a FAFSA,” she says.

[Read: How to Get FAFSA Completion Help During Coronavirus.]

The transition to the graduation requirement was difficult for many families and parents initially, Hattier says. Some expressed privacy concerns, and others simply did not want to participate.

However, it has caused more people to pay attention to the college financial aid process.

“When you’re dealing with personal financial information, that in itself is alarming for families to share that data,” says James Lewis, president of the National Society of High School Scholars. “Getting over the hurdle that this information will actually provide them with financial assistance in a very meaningful way, and it will help them assess the true cost of an education.”

As tuition costs have risen rapidly over the years, families may be unaware that the tuition price they see on a college’s website is rarely the amount an average student pays.

“One thing I hadn’t realized (before going to college) is how much money is actually out there to help students,” says Alexandra Van de Kieft, a junior at Cornell University in New York.

“When you go to these college admissions events and go on a tour and they have the prices listed on their pamphlets, it can seem really daunting. But I would say upon entering college, I realized how many resources there are to help students pay for it.”

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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States Requiring FAFSA for High School Seniors

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Update 12/22/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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