Tuesday, July 23, 2019 by Claire McInerny

New Texas law aims to make sure students don’t leave free college money unclaimed

When Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3 into law earlier this summer, in addition to increasing school funding and approving teacher raises, he also approved a requirement for all Texas high school seniors to fill out an application for federal or state financial aid for college.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is intended to see whether a student qualifies for loans, scholarships, grants or work study. As the name suggests, it’s free to apply – yet a lot of students don’t.

“Students make assumptions based on what they’ve heard from either counselors or other students,” says Jaime Ayala, the student success coordinator at Foundation Communities’ College Hub. He regularly advises students in Austin on how to fill out the form.

“Some students just think, ‘Oh, no, we make too much and we’re not gonna qualify,’” he says, “or ‘I don’t want student loans; I don’t want to do FAFSA because I don’t want loans.’”

Fifty-five percent of Texas high school seniors completed the FAFSA this year – that’s just under the national average. Students who don’t fill out the form are leaving a lot of money on the table, specifically from federal Pell Grants, which don’t have to be paid back. According to the personal finance website NerdWallet, the high school class of 2018 nationwide missed out on $2.6 billion in free money for college.

Texas seniors will be required to fill out the forms starting in the 2021-22 school year. Louisiana is the only other state that makes it a requirement.

“I think that the requirement to complete the FAFSA is a good one,” says Isaac Torres, the director of high school, college and career success at the E3 Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on how education impacts the economy in Central Texas. “For an increasing number of low-income, first-generation students, it’s going to be that critical first step that gets them to enroll full time and complete their degree on time.”

Torres says he hopes a higher FAFSA completion rate means more students will receive financial aid and more students will finish their degrees.

“Because every job, really, in 2020 that pays a living wage requires some type of postsecondary credential,” he says.


More Manpower


Louisiana now has the highest rate of students filling out the FAFSA in the country. But Texas is seven times the size of Louisiana, and many students here will need help filling out the form.

“That means more manpower … to sit with students and sort of understand these applications and help them fill them out,” Ayala says.

John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas, advocated for the law, but says he knows school districts across the state will need help to meet this mandate.

“We know that many school counselors are overburdened,” he says. “They’re handling a lot of, not just college applications and FAFSA, but social-emotional learning and helping students navigate their lives. So we need to figure out what combination of manpower and technology support can support counselors.”

He says it will require a lot of planning to prepare for the requirement.


Deportation Fears


And there’s another hurdle: According to one estimate, Texas has the second-highest number of undocumented immigrants in the country. To complete the FAFSA, students must share their citizenship status, as well as their parents’ Social Security numbers. Ayala says that can scare students who are citizens but whose parents are not.

“Oftentimes we see that students may have a parent who is undocumented,” he said. “They’re afraid to disclose that information” – or anything immigration-related – “out of fear that their family could get deported.”

Right now, he advises those students not to fill out anything they aren’t comfortable with. The law says families can opt out.

Undocumented students aren’t eligible for federal aid, but they are eligible for state aid. To get that aid, they must fill out the Texas Application for Free Financial Aid (TAFSA).

Under the law, the state is required to set up a commission to make a detailed plan on how to support schools with the new mandate.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by The Bent Tree made available through a Creative Commons license.

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