Nebraska may become the fourth state to require high school students to complete their FAFSA prior to their graduation.
Sen. Tony Vargas, representing the 7th district introduced LB108 on Jan. 21 with a bipartisan coalition of senators, including Brett Lindstrom (LD18) and Dave Murman (LD38). The bill, if passed, would require every high school student to complete the FAFSA prior to graduation.
Students pursuing post-secondary education currently have the option to complete and file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to be considered for federal (Pell Grant, Subsidized Stafford Loan, Federal Perkins Loan, Federal Work-Study Program), state-sponsored (Nebraska Opportunity Grant) and college sponsored financial aid.
After Nebraska exceeded the national average for FAFSA incompletion rates, with 38% of students not completing and submitting their FAFSA, Vargas hopes that his bill could help increase the number of applications completed.
This will lead to students having better access to, financial aid packages that can help afford or attending higher education systems in the state of Nebraska,” said Vargas.
Vargas said increasing the availability of financial aid can create better job opportunities for students in the workforce. It helps to provide different options for high school students, even if they choose not to pursue higher education.
“If a student does not want to attend higher education, it will still be required to complete the FAFSA, but they are not mandated to accept the award,” Vargas said. “We just want to let people know what options they have in front of them and are not missing a step so that they receive resources that are provided to them.”
Vargas said some of the issues of the incompletion of FAFSA is from the lack of resources in certain areas of Nebraska. The varying amount of resources could explain the varying amount of completion.
“There are some school districts where you have 80% of students completing the FAFSA, and there are some school districts where you have less than 40% completing the FAFSA,” Vargas said.
The 49% of enrolled high school students who did not complete the FAFSA reported that they did not complete it because they were ineligible or may not qualify, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education. Other reasons included not wanting to take on debt, while 23% did not have enough information about how to complete the FAFSA
Vargas said he hopes that secondary education institutions and public K-12 schools can work together to make sure all students have the necessary resources to help complete the FAFSA and “do everything they can to ensure those that have the most trouble with access to resources will be supported.”
Under LB1089, Nebraska high schools may also waive the requirement to complete the FAFSA if a parent or legal guardian certifies to the school district that they refuse or are not able to fulfill the requirements under reasonable circumstances.
If this bill passes, Nebraska would not be alone in requiring FAFSA completion, as other states have passed similar bills to the one Vargas proposed.
“Louisiana was the first state to pass this bill,” Vargas said. “Texas and Illinois joined to be the second or third.”
Louisiana passed the bill in 2015, and as of 2018, the state has the highest number of students completing the FAFSA at 77.1%, which is an increase of over 25%, according to the National College Access Network website. In the 2019-20 cycle, 76% of Louisiana’s seniors have completed the FAFSA.
“Louisiana saw a huge jump in FAFSA completion basically by requiring it as one of the standards of graduating,” Vargas said. “The jump went somewhere from 30% to 80% of completion. We have existing resources, but sometimes by simply ensuring and setting a standard, we’re providing the flexibility for school districts to then use those resources to assure higher completion.”
The timely completion of the FAFSA is an essential step for many families obtaining financial aid, according to the Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education website.
Vargas said his personal experience as a first-generation student is that his parents had no knowledge about the FAFSA.
“My parents came from Peru and they were working multiple jobs and they weren’t able to be as informed about every single initiative, even though they want me to attend and afford college,” Vargas said.
Vargas said he presumes that because of the impact of poverty, especially for immigrant or refugee students in low-income families, the FAFSA may not be the first thing they are aware or knowledgeable of.
“We need to shed light and address these issues if this is a barrier to them attending higher education,” Vargas said. “The higher education that we know is a life changer for individuals to be able to have jobs, support themselves in the family and honestly change the course for an entire generation of the family.”
Vargas said if he didn’t receive the financial aid from his FAFSA, he wouldn’t have had the access to education needed to become a state senator.
“We are bridging a barrier to ensure that funds that are paid to the federal government are going for the intended use,” Vargas said. “Help those family and kids find the opportunities to change their life and be in the career that they want by affording higher education.”