Concerned that tens of millions of dollars are being left on the table, Louisiana leaders are launching a bid to ensure that public school seniors apply for federal or state education aid for college.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last week approved a new policy that, starting in 2018, will require Louisiana’s roughly 35,000 seniors each year to apply for the money or submit a signed form that says they will not.
About 15,000 fail to seek the federal aid now, a sore point for state education leaders for months.
“We have two problems,” said state Superintendent of Education John White. “First, we are leaving tens of millions of dollars every year because we are not applying for financial aid that will fund not just universities but community colleges and technical training.
“That problem is compounded by the fact that it is really the kids that need the aid the most that are applying the least.”
Under the new rules, students will have to apply for federal dollars through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or the Louisiana Office for Student Financial Assistance, which offers TOPS and other state scholarship assistance.
The applications will be required for graduation.
However, students also can submit a form with a parent’s signature that says they are opting out of any financial requests.
Critics call that a major loophole.
Backers say it is aimed at making sure families weigh the issue before making any final decisions rather than having the matter fall through the cracks.
FAFSA applications allow students to be eligible for a wide range of federal assistance, including Pell Grants, work-study programs and student loans, including technical training.
They also serve as applications for TOPS, which provides state assistance for tuition and other costs.
LOFSA applications pave the way for state aid.
However, some students and families are put off by the applications themselves, including the required income information.
“I think, for some parents, it is overwhelming,” said Ashley Aucoin, a counselor at Lutcher High School. “But it is definitely not something they can’t get through.”
Some students focus on state aid because they see little chance of landing federal dollars. In rare cases, families conclude they can pay for college costs without any state or federal assistance.
How much students typically miss out on is unclear, mostly because each case is heavily dependent on a family’s financial situation.
But White said even raising the percentage of Louisiana students who seek federal aid to the national average — about 55 percent — could generate $50 million. If all students sought those dollars, it could bring in about $250 million, he said.
Gwen Bankston, a retired counselor in Tangipahoa Parish, told BESE she has seen the problem firsthand.
In some cases, she said, students put all their eggs in one basket: TOPS.
Bankston also downplayed complications surrounding FAFSA and other applications.
“To me, the paperwork is not as bad as filling out the documentation to buy a used car,” she said.
Lee Barrios, a retired educator who lives in St. Tammany Parish, told BESE the new rules are flawed because students can avoid applying.
“It needs to be looked at more because there is an opt-out provision,” said Barrios, who lost a bid for BESE in October.
Others said opting out will require students and families to study the issue.
“At least they made that conscious effort,” Aucoin said.
The state plans to offer school districts $1 million in grants, in part for assistance from groups that can help counselors in aiding students with the applications.
White said federal officials also are taking steps to make it easier to qualify for the money.
Under one recent change, families can use the previous tax year on FAFSA applications, which means they can tackle the paperwork in the fall of their senior year rather than the often more hectic spring.
Bipartisan steps also are underway in Congress to simplify FAFSA.
“I think it is a fair concern,” White said. “They have been too complicated to finish in the past.”
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog.