Education Superintendent John White’s ‘somewhat peculiar’ absence noticed at State Capitol after years of higher profile _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE -- John White, Louisiana Superintendent of Education, delivers the opening remarks at the September Supervisor Collaboration event at Bayou Church on Monday

Seeking federal help for college is a growing habit in Louisiana.

A total of 65 percent of high school seniors have applied for assistance, up from 58 percent last year, the state Department of Education announced Monday.

The rate was 48 percent just two years ago, and the latest figure is an all-time high.

State leaders have been urging students to apply for the aid for the past 18 months amid concerns students were leaving over $50 million per year on the table. In addition, federal officials started accepting applications in October of 2016, instead of the usual January start to give students more time.

The request is called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

State officials suggested that seniors submit their applications by July 1 for the 2017-18 school year. The aid applies to Pell grants, work study programs and federal student loans.

It is also required for high school seniors to get priority consideration for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.

"Historically, Louisiana's FAFSA submission rate has trailed the rest of the nation," state Superintendent of Education John White said in a statement. "Now, we are not only meeting the rates of our peers but we are, in many cases, surpassing them."

Federal officials said 26,855 high school seniors have applied for the aid, up from 23,733 at the same time in 2016.

In 2014-15 a total of 48 percent of high school seniors sought the aid, well below the U.S. average of 55 percent at the time. That means submissions are up 35 percent over two years ago.

Reluctant students and families have long complained about the complexity of the form and what they see as little chance for landing any federal aid.

White has said students most in need of the assistance apply the least.

Districts with the highest  application rates include St. Bernard, 78 percent; Livingston, 77 percent; Iberville, 73 percent and St. James, 73 percent.

Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school system, said Monday her district has always made the aid request a priority since nearly 80 percent of students come from low-income families.

Voitier said counselors are making the issue an even bigger goal now, and she said the ability of families to use tax returns from the previous year on their applications has helped the submission rate.

Other submission rates include the St. Charles School District, 70 percent; Orleans, 69 percent; Central, 69 percent; Zachary, 68 percent; Jefferson, 68 percent; Ascension, 68 percent; St. Tammany, 67 percent; West Baton Rouge, 67 percent; East Baton Rouge, 67 percent; West Feliciana, 66 percent and Lafayette, 65 percent.

Top-rated schools include Crescent Leadership Academy in New Orleans, 100 percent; Southern University Lab School in Baton Rouge, 100 percent; Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Center, 100 percent; Northeast High School in Baton Rouge, 98 percent; Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, 92 percent; Baton Rouge Magnet High School, 91 percent and Lusher Charter School in New Orleans, 90 percent.

Students next year will be required to file applications, or sign a form that says they will not do so.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved that policy in 2015 in a bid to boost state applications, and to lessen chances the issue is overlooked.

Critics said allowing students to opt out is a major loophole.

Voitier, a member of BESE, said the upcoming rule is another reason for the renewed push in her district to get students to seek the assistance.

The same policy led to state officials encouraging school counselors to advise all students to submit the forms, not just those planning to attend college.

Counselors were also provided training kits to help in the push.

"Louisiana's increase in the number of FAFSAs completed by graduating seniors means that more Louisiana students will have access to the funds necessary to obtain a post-secondary education or the skill and occupational training necessary to ensure a comfortable lifestyle in a career that they love," Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said in a statement.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.