Personal Finance

Getting financial aid for college is more important than ever before

Key Points
  • Studies show students are more likely to enroll in college when they have the financial resources to help them pay for it.
  • A number of states are considering bills to make the FAFSA mandatory for high school seniors.
FAFSA: Finding financial aid
FAFSA: Finding financial aid

As college costs rise, financial aid is a growing necessity, yet many students still don't apply.

Now, more states are requiring that they do — and paving the way to a college degree for some who might not be able to otherwise afford it.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, serves as the gateway to all federal money, including loans, work-study and grants, which are the most desirable kind of assistance.

Currently, only Louisiana and Illinois require you to file a FAFSA to graduate from high school. But soon the same will be true for Texas and at least another eight states, including CaliforniaFloridaHawaiiIndianaKentuckyMarylandNebraska and New Jersey, which are all considering bills to make the FAFSA mandatory, as well.

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The idea behind making the FAFSA mandatory is that students are more likely to enroll in college when they are aware of the financial resources available to help them pay for it, according to the National College Attainment Network.

FAFSA completion can boost a student's likelihood of going to college and graduating, studies show.

In Louisiana, high school graduation rates have risen since the state implemented this rule, and the number of high school graduates immediately enrolling in college has climbed to an all-time high, according to early data.

"Time will tell if this is an effective approach, but more broadly, what's particularly encouraging is that we're seeing a collective understanding of how important it is for students and families to complete the FAFSA," said Ashley Boucher, a spokeswoman for education lender Sallie Mae.

Coronavirus impacts college affordability—What students should know
Coronavirus impacts college affordability—What students should know

A lengthy and overly complicated application is another hurdle for many students and their families, Boucher said.

To that end, congressional education leaders have also been working toward simplifying the FAFSA, which would go a long way to increasing access even without state mandates.

In December, the Consolidated Appropriations Act was passed to streamline the process.

"Reducing the FAFSA from 108 questions to 36 will remove the biggest barrier to helping more low-income students pursue higher education," said former senator Lamar Alexander, the leading driver behind simplifying the form, said in a statement.

However, those changes won't go into effect until the 2023–24 academic year.

Don't miss out on financial aid – here's how to get that money
Don't miss out on financial aid – here's how to get that money

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, parents and students may need more immediate help paying for college.

Yet even fewer families have applied for financial aid this year.

As of January, the number of applications was down 10% from last year, with roughly 144,000 fewer high school seniors applying, according to the National College Attainment Network.

"That is a number that certainly concerns us," said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Attainment Network.

Some would-be undergraduates may have opted to find jobs instead of going to college to help their families through the economic crisis, Warick said. Others simply feel that the tuition tab is not worth it while colleges are operating remotely, particularly at the same high cost they would pay for an in-person education, she added.

In ordinary years, high school graduates miss out on billions in federal grants because they don't fill out the FAFSA. Many families mistakenly assume they won't qualify for financial aid and don't even bother to apply.

Meanwhile, college costs are rising. Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $50,770 in the 2020-21 school year; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $22,180, according to the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.

For families who have already filed the FAFSA but have since experienced a financial shock, it is also possible to amend their FAFSA form or ask the college financial aid office for more aid, according to Kalman Chany, a financial aid consultant and author of The Princeton Review's "Paying for College."

"For students filling out the FAFSA this year, it won't encompass how the pandemic may have impacted your financial picture," he said.

If your household income has gone down, file your 2020 return so that you can document that reduction, he advised. "The more documentation you can provide, the better."

Colleges are likely receptive to appeals, he added — particularly now.

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