House, Senate debate making FAFSA college aid applications a high school graduation requirement

    BRIEF

    A jar of money with graduation mortarboard.
    House Republicans called the proposal an intrusive mandate. (Getty Images)

    Lawmakers in the House and Senate are at odds over an obscure education debate: whether to require high school students to fill out federal college aid applications in order to graduate.

    Members of the Senate have voted to introduce the requirement. Voting 24-0 in March, the chamber passed Senate Bill 147, part of which would have required high school seniors 18 and older to fill out an application for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to get their diploma.

    FAFSA applications are a free option for high school students to determine how much financial aid they might receive from colleges and universities – both federal aid and private aid.

    Under the Senate proposal, brought forward by Keene Democratic Sen. Jay Kahn, an 18-year-old student would have to either fill out a FAFSA application or complete a waiver that states they have chosen not to do so. School districts would be required to provide assistance to the students to fill out those applications. 

    Filling out the application or the waiver would be a requirement for receiving a diploma from a public high school, the bill states. 

    But House Republicans disagreed with the proposal, framing at it as an intrusive mandate into a personal choice for students and families. In a party-line decision, the House Education Committee moved to take out the graduation requirement. 

    To Democratic supporters – and members of the Senate – the Senate mandate would be a key tool to improve the rate of applications for FAFSA. Many students are unaware that financial aid packages exist to allow them to afford college, supporters argue.

    New Hampshire schools vary on FAFSA completion, but many hover between a 60 to 70 percent turn-in rate, according to data from the Federal Student Aid office of the U.S. Department of Education.

    Data from the U.S. Department of Education suggests most New Hampshire schools have around a 60 percent completion rate for FAFSA applications.

    Rep. David Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, pointed to the example of Louisiana, which made FAFSA applications a graduation requirement in 2018 and saw a 25 percent one-year increase in FAFSA application returns. Illinois and Texas have also added those laws. 

    “What’s it mean for kids?” Luneau said. “Well, for students who didn’t think their family could afford college, maybe a door opens. And for kids who’d love a high-value credential from (New Hampshire Technical Institute) but didn’t have the money and opportunity to receive a Federal Pell Grant, a hope for a better future.”

    Rep. Rick Ladd, the chairman of the House Education Committee, sees the measure as restrictive.

    “That’s nothing short of an overreach of government, an invasion of student and family privacy,” the Haverhill Republican said.

    Instead, Ladd added, the amended bill will require school districts to share with the Department of Education the number of students who returned the forms. It’s up to schools to encourage students to apply, he argued.

    “This should be done anyways; it’s being done in our schools, through parent-teacher conferences, through working with parents after school and explaining this very complicated form,” he said. 

    The House voted, 203-172, Thursday to pass a version of the bill that stripped out the graduation requirement.