California has joined seven other states in implementing a policy that makes it mandatory for all graduating high school seniors to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) unless they take steps to opt-out. California has joined Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, Alabama, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Maryland in introducing this Universal FAFSA policy, which encourages eligible students from lower-income families to take advantage of the free money states offer to help students get a college education.
In January of 2022, the National College Attainment Network released a shocking statistic: in 2021 nearly 3.75 billion dollars in Pell Grant money went unclaimed by college-bound students in the United States. California was the state where the most Pell Grant money left untouched; over 500 million dollars that could have been used to help CA residents pay for college was never claimed. Pell Grants are awarded on a state-by-state basis to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need.
Over the course of the pandemic, fewer students filled out the Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA). In 2021, only 54 percent of graduating seniors completed the FAFSA, down from 61 percent in 2017. Between this and an increase in the amount of money that could be awarded via a Pell Grant, the amount of unclaimed Pell Grant money increased 60 percent in just six years.
Many students do no fill out the FAFSA because they believe they won't be able to afford college even with grants and scholarships. Others struggle with the confusing paperwork that asks for personal information that students don't always have access to themselves, like their parents' income. Many states that have a Universal FAFSA policy also offer resources to help students overcome obstacles to filling out the application and easy opt-out policies for students with special circumstances.
Several other states, including Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York and South Carolina, are also considering switching to the a mandatory FAFSA policy after seeing promising results in other states. In 2018, the first year that Louisiana introduced the new Universal FAFSA policy, the state saw an an impressive 25.9 percent increase in the number of students who completed the FAFSA. This notable jump made Louisiana one of the states with the highest percentage of high seniors completing the FAFSA.
For more on Universal FAFSA, listen to the segment below from Marketplace.org.
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