Louisiana students are missing out on tens of millions of dollars that could help them pay for college, because more than half of the state’s high school seniors are not completing the application required for federal student aid.

About 44 percent of Louisiana public high school seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, last year — well below the national average of 55 percent, according to state Department of Education figures.

The Education Department estimates that thousands of Louisiana students are missing out on access to federal grants, work-study programs and government-backed loans by failing to fill out a form.

“The problem, of course, is that leaves money on the table,” state Superintendent of Education John White said.

White raised the issue during a Thursday meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Regents.

He didn’t offer specific plans for getting more students to fill out the federal aid applications. Instead, he asked for suggestions and consideration until the item can be revisited.

“There’s got to be more support and transparency,” he said.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, White said students and parents often aren’t aware of — or are confused by — the FAFSA.

“We in the high schools need to accept some responsibility,” he said. “They need more support.”

The FAFSA also is used to qualify for state aid, including Louisiana’s TOPS program that covers tuition for in-state students and the state’s GO Grant program. The state has a simpler, alternate form students can fill out for its aid programs, but it doesn’t cover federal assistance.

Much of the 10-page FAFSA form resembles an instruction manual for cheap furniture — broken out into a series of steps that must be referred back to and followed to a T.

The rest of it is a series of boxes and circles to be filled. Its 105 questions range from “What type of income tax return did you file?” to “What is your total current balance of cash, savings and checking accounts?”

Maggie Brakeville, a Louisiana Tech University student who serves on the Board of Regents, said she remembers the frustration of struggling to fill out the application.

“It’s not an easy form to fill out. … Looking at it, at times, I didn’t even know what it was asking,” she said. “At 18 years old, you don’t know where to get that information, as an average student.”

The White House and members of Congress, including lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, have called for streamlining the application process.

White agreed that it’s likely that many people get intimidated by the form. He said that until there is some sort of simplification of the FAFSA, it’s up to the state to figure out how to offer students more direct counseling and hold high schools accountable for providing guidance the students need.

According to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, more than 90 percent of students who come from families with annual average household incomes of less than $40,000 a year would receive some form of aid if they submitted FAFSAs. Louisiana ranks among the states with the lowest household incomes at about $44,800, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

If just 4,360 more students applied each year — enough to get Louisiana up to the national FAFSA rate among states — then the Department of Education estimates that an additional $53.9 million would be available in federal grant and work-study aid for Louisiana college students. That’s money that doesn’t have to be paid back.

If the state were to climb to an 80 percent application rate, students could tap into an estimated $178.2 million they aren’t getting now.

Louisiana Board of Regents member Roy O. Martin III said it shouldn’t be hard to get students and their parents to attend guidance or training sessions if the programs are offered and publicized.

“To get them there, just say, ‘Free money is here,’ ” he said.

College affordability has been a concern for higher education leaders in recent years.

Tuition has been on a drastic incline amid state cuts to colleges and universities.

Louisiana’s per-student higher ed funding has fallen more than any other state’s between fiscal 2008 and last year’s budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

According to stats from the Education Department, some Louisiana high schools have been successful at encouraging FAFSA completion and have surpassed the national average.

Oak Grove High School in West Carroll Parish had a nearly 85 percent completion rate — the state’s highest. Benjamin Franklin High School, Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Lafayette High School, Mandeville High, Central High, Zachary High School and Dutchtown High School also surpassed the state and national average, with more than 60 percent of seniors filling out FAFSAs. The figures don’t include dropouts.

White said one effort may include looking at those schools to see if practices can be duplicated elsewhere. On the state-wide level, he said, many counselors haven’t been trained in how to help families fill out the forms.

“Some way, we have to put the onus on us,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog .