Just a few years ago, Louisiana trailed much of the nation in the number of high school seniors seeking college aid.
Now the state ranks No. 1 in student applications for federal dollars, ending a long-standing complaint that students were leaving $50 million or more of potential college aid on the table every year.
More than three out of four public and private high school seniors — 76.5 percent — have completed the form, called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
That means they are eligible for a wide range of federal assistance, including Pell grants, work study programs and loans for four-year colleges as well as community and technical schools.
"Parents are now realizing how important it is for them to do it, for their kids to do it," said Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.
This year's application rate marks a sharp turnaround from the past.
Just 48 percent of high school seniors submitted applications in 2015, well below the U.S. average at the time — 55 percent. A total of 65 percent of students had filed applications at this time last year.
Seeking federal help for college is a growing habit in Louisiana.
Much of the gain stems from a little-noticed policy change approved in 2015 by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Concerned that tens of millions of dollars are being left on the table, Louisiana leaders are launching a bid to ensure that public school sen…
The new rule, at the urging of state Superintendent of Education John White, required public high school seniors to apply for federal or state financial assistance as a condition for graduation starting with the seniors of 2018.
Students have to apply for federal aid through FAFSA or state assistance through the Louisiana Office for Student Financial Assistance. Those who opt not to must submit a form with a parent's signature.
Critics at the time called the opt-out provision a giant loophole in BESE's requirement.
Others said it would force families to consider the issue rather than losing any chance for federal or state dollars inadvertently.
The state had about 49,000 public and private high school seniors during the 2017-18 school year, according to the National College Access Network, which tracks applications.
A total of 37,549 of those students have submitted FAFSA forms as of June 22, the group says.
The deadline for priority consideration was July 1.
Louisiana is slightly ahead of Tennessee.
About two of three public high schools here had at least 75 percent of seniors submit FAFSA forms, up from 18 percent of schools last year, state officials said.
Other high-ranking states for FAFSA applications are Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey. In Louisiana, 7,306 students opted out of the applications, according to the state Department of Education.
In the past White said Louisiana's low rate of applications for federal aid was especially noticeable among students who most needed the assistance.
The St. Bernard Parish School District, where 80 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, got all of its high school seniors to submit FAFSA forms this time.
"We have just made it a priority," said Doris Voitier, superintendent of the district and a member of BESE.
"We have an administrative group at our high school that feels it is extremely important and made sure all of our students and parents are aware of it," Voitier said.
More than 90 percent of high school seniors submitted applications in the West Baton Rouge and St. John the Baptist parish school systems, state officials said.
BESE President Gary Jones said requiring students to request college aid to graduate dovetails with Louisiana's longtime push to improve its high school graduation rate.
After a drop last year, Louisiana's public high school graduation rate shot up to 78.1 percent, the state's highest ever, officials announced …
"What it is doing is giving kids that probably never even thought about going to college the idea that they could do," said Jones, who lives in Alexandria.
Educators have said students in the past shied away from seeking federal aid in favor of state assistance.
Some parents have complained that FAFSA applications are too complicated.
Jones said the requirement has been well received.
"Some talk about forcing kids to do this," he said. "I never got a single complaint. Not one."