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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on August 20th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 25 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 25

Santa Maria high school district aims to make financial aid forms mandatory for graduating seniors

By WILLIAM D'URSO

Diana Perez and her fellow members of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District board of education saw a problem: Too few students were attending college. The culprit in their minds? Not enough students filing financial aid applications.


FINANCE FORMS
The Santa Maria Joint Union High School District is mulling over whether to make filling out a FAFSA mandatory for graduating seniors.
FILE PHOTO

“I think the students who were missing were middle-income students,” Perez said. “I think middle-income students sometimes have this misconception that they don’t qualify.”

Perez and school district administrators found what they believe is their answer at the Val Verde Unified School District. The top educators there had installed a program mandating that every high school graduate fill out financial aid forms.

At issue is FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And Perez’s school district isn’t the only one loaded with students who don’t apply for funding.

Personal finance website NerdWallet estimates that students missed out on $2.6 billion in grants in 2018, simply because a pool of 661,000 eligible high school graduates didn’t complete financial aid forms. 

In 2019, students can earn about $6,100 in Pell Grants, possibly more depending on several factors including whether students are full time. That amount doesn’t include the potential loan opportunities or other free money grants and scholarships offered by the state or local municipalities that could be available if students filled out and filed financial aid forms.

But critics have said the form is too cumbersome. In March 2019, Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander proposed to simplify the application by cutting 108 questions from the form.

Locally, district board member Perez said that students need support to complete and turn in the document and that making FAFSA completion mandatory would be a good step in that direction.

“It’s so they have a head start in choices,” Perez said. “If a student decides last minute they’re not going to college, there’s really no harm.” 

Successful filing of those forms could set students up for Pell Grants, free money that goes directly toward college expenses. A student is offered funding depending on the financial information in their legal guardian’s tax returns. Assistance can also take the form of loans, which have varying structures but are typically low interest and often allow students to begin paying them off after graduation.

Perez and other school district officials started conversations about making FAFSA submissions mandatory as the school year ended in June. Further discussions were postponed until the fall, with parents and other community members invited to the Sept. 10 school district board meeting.

While the process at the Santa Maria high school district may just be getting started, the idea itself isn’t new.

Louisiana was the first state to pass a law mandating high school students to complete financial aid planning for college starting in the 2017-18 school year. Filling out a FAFSA is one of four options students can choose from. According to numbers from the National College Access Network, 78.7 percent of graduating seniors in Louisiana filed FAFSA forms for the coming school year, more than any other state. That’s a 25 percent more students than the previous year.

Texas and Illinois followed suit this summer making submitting FAFSA forms a requirement for graduation. California has legislation on the docket with Assembly Bill 1617, introduced by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino) in April 2019.

“The research is clear, by providing students and families assistance with completing and submitting a FAFSA, you significantly increase the chances of that student enrolling into college and achieving academic success,” Reyes said in a statement to the Sun. 

In California, that idea began in the Val Verde Unified School District in the Moreno Valley.

“We’re trying to eliminate as many barriers for kids who want to access post-secondary options,” said Val Verde Assistant Superintendent Mark LeNoir.

LeNoir said the district is about two years into the policy, and officials spent roughly a year researching and discussing the requirement that Louisiana implemented.

While he didn’t have hard numbers, LeNoir said the program is having its intended effect.

“We know that it’s equating to millions more dollars for our kids to explore options,” he said.

LeNoir said the FAFSA application requirement hasn’t caused much dismay with parents or students, and that of the 1,556 seniors who graduated last year, just 11 opted out.

But LeNoir said there’s still a long way for the program to go. The district is happy with the improved engagement of students in the financial aid application process, but he wants to ensure that students don’t lose steam during the summer.

“We call it summer snowmelt,” LeNoir said. 

It’s what teachers and administrators call July and August, when students can get bogged down filling out college forms for a range of necessities like housing. Sometimes, LeNoir said, such forms pose a hangup that prevent students from attending college that fall.

“We want to make sure they enroll,” he said. “We want to make sure we have people available over the summer who can help a student if they get tripped up with a housing form or whatever it might be.”

He said the Val Verde district has allocated funds to guidance counselors who can answer questions and provide support during the summer.

In Santa Maria, Perez and her colleagues began crafting their policy by watching LeNoir give presentations on how mandatory FAFSA submissions worked in his district. One of the keys is offering students the ability to opt out, so those who object can still get their diploma.

But Perez is still having conversations within the district, especially with parents, and everyone will have a chance to offer their thoughts on Sept. 10. Using that information, Perez hopes the district can craft a policy that could be ready for a vote in November.

“If parents disagree, then they ought to come and tell us,” Perez said. “If they agree, we want to hear that too.” 

Reach Staff Writer William D’Urso at wdurso@santamariasun.com




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