Louisiana has seen a huge increase in the number of high school students applying for federal financial aid. Last year at this time, only 797 students had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance, or FAFSA. This year that number soared to 11,000.
According to local news reports, state leaders said the increase happened because of two things: the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to make the FAFSA available three months earlier this year, and the state’s own push to make schools aware of the importance of helping students complete the forms. The state also provided counselors with a toolkit to help them support students.
FAFSA completion has been a perennial problem nationally. Every year, students leave billions of college financial aid on the table because they don’t apply to get a piece of it. Sometimes, they are unaware of the importance of completing the FAFSA; often they’re intimidated by filling it out. In several rounds, the U.S. Department of Education has made it simpler and easier to complete.
This year brought one of the biggest changes: Students could begin filling out the FAFSA three months earlier, and they could use “prior-prior” tax year information. For this year’s seniors, that means they can submit 2015 tax information, which is complete and final, rather than 2016’s, which would have to be updated later when it’s finalized.
The move to “prior-prior” year tax information was hailed in many sectors as a way of simplifying the process. It was also intended to make it easier for colleges to make financial aid awards earlier, giving families more time to figure out their options. But as we reported a few months ago, many colleges weren’t optimistic that they could move up those financial-aid award timelines.
Louisiana officials don’t yet know how much its FAFSA completion rates will rise, since the aid applications are still being submitted. But the state appears to be on the road to a big increase. At this time last year, 2 percent of seniors had completed FAFSAs, state officials said. This year, 26 percent have.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.