FAFSA form completion could become a Michigan high school graduation requirement

Three students sitting together at a table in a library.
A proposed bill would make filling out the FAFSA form a graduation requirement for Michigan high schoolers. (Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Age)

Michigan students would be required to complete a federal financial aid form to graduate from high school under a bill that supporters hope will help remove a barrier to the pursuit of higher education.

The proposal would bring Michigan in line with about a dozen other states that have passed laws to make completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid a graduation requirement. A few more states are contemplating a similar rule.

The FAFSA is used to determine a student’s eligibility for federal grants, work-study funds, and loans. It’s also used in some cases to determine whether a student qualifies for state or and private aid, as well as tuition assistance programs offered by the state’s major universities to students from low-income families.

State Sen. Darrin Camilleri, a Democrat from Trenton, said he introduced the bill to help students recognize the post-secondary opportunities available to them.

“In 2023, only about half of graduating high school seniors completed a FAFSA in Michigan, and this year was not an outlier, " he said during a Senate Education Committee hearing in October. “On average, Michigan students are leaving nearly $100 million in federal aid on the table simply because this form is not filled out.”

Skeptics of the bill have been concerned that the FAFSA requirement would force families to disclose sensitive financial or personal information, either to complete the form or to seek a waiver from the requirement. The bill has been modified to address some of their concerns.

Others say it would add a new burden on college counselors to help students comply. The online form can be confusing, and usually requires students and their parents — or anyone else who might help pay for a child’s education — to set up separate accounts and logins and complete their respective parts of the form.

The federal government’s rollout of a new FAFSA form with fewer questions was supposed to make the process easier. But the changes have not gone as smoothly as intended since the soft launch on Dec. 31, with numerous reports of technology issues.

“I’ve spoken to colleagues who have their own kids who are seniors and are filling out FAFSA this year,” said Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. “They thought the form would be easier this year, and they have found that not to be true. It took them a lot more time, and these are people who are already familiar with the process.”

Expect more such challenges for people who are not familiar with the form.

Ninth-graders Omari Pennington and Brayden Lewis said they had never heard about the FAFSA.

They are both interested in going to college but haven’t talked with a counselor at Detroit Public Schools Community District’s Henry Ford High School about the opportunities available to them yet.

Both children of single mothers, Omari and Brayden said it might be difficult for their moms to find the time to fill out the form with them if it were a requirement.

“My mom is busy,” said Brayden. “She goes to work from like 7 to 12 in the morning.”

But both Omari and Brayden said they can see the benefit the bill might have in allowing more kids to see that there is funding available for their education.

States with FAFSA requirements see higher completion rates

Onjila Odeneal, senior director of policy and advocacy in Michigan for the Institute for College Access and Success, said that overall the bill will help a lot of students see college as something they can attain, especially in low-income and minority families.

“A lot of kids are not completing FAFSA because they don’t think post-secondary education is possible for them,” Odeneal said. “It’s important for them to be aware of what’s available for them.”

Filling out the FAFSA unlocks grants and funding from Michigan universities, such as the University of Michigan’s various tuition discount programs and its Go Blue Guarantee, and Michigan State University’s Spartan Tuition Advantage.

The form is also required for students to qualify for money from two key state programs. One of them, the Michigan Achievement Scholarship gives up to $5,500 a year for qualifying students to attend an in-state public university, $4,000 a year to go to an independent nonprofit college, $2,750 for community college, or $2,000 for career training programs. The other, Michigan Reconnect, pays tuition at local community colleges for students age 21 and older.

States that have adopted the requirement have seen big increases in FAFSA completion rates among high school seniors. Texas’ FAFSA completion rate went from about 50% to around 63%. In Louisiana, 2020 research by the Century Foundation found the requirement helped close the gap in FAFSA completion rates between school districts in low- and high-income communities.

However, the research also revealed information gaps and other hurdles for students applying for aid.

For example, the number of applications with incomplete information was higher in districts with higher rates of students of color and students from low-income families. English-learners also had difficulty interpreting the form, and students who didn’t have documented legal immigration status struggled to fill it out because they didn’t have Social Security numbers.

Zdeb, from the principals group, worries that the legislation undermines the efforts of educators to destigmatize the idea of going to trade and technical schools, rather than four-year colleges, after high school. “This is kind of contradicting that message,” she said.

Camilleri noted that the bill would still help many students pursuing those educational options, because FAFSA is also used to determine eligibility for federal Pell grants, which can be used to attend some trade and technical schools.

Bill allows for waivers from FAFSA requirement

Under the most recent iteration of the bill, the law would take effect with this year’s sophomore class — the high school graduating Class of 2026 — and require every public school student to submit a FAFSA form to the U.S. Department of Education, unless they receive a waiver. School districts and the Michigan Department of Education would be required to compile data on how many students complete the form and how many receive waivers.

Parents could sign a waiver to exempt their children from the requirement. Waivers would also be available for students 18 or older, emancipated youth, and youth experiencing homelessness, among other circumstances, such as when parents or guardians are unwilling or unable to submit their part of the form.

The bill would require the newly created Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential to create an information packet on the FAFSA for school districts to distribute to high school students.

School districts would have to come up with funding they need to enforce compliance with the legislation, according to a fiscal impact analysis of the bill.

A big concern for administrators and school groups is whether high schools have enough counselors equipped to take on the new task. Michigan ranks among the lowest in the nation for the ratio of counselors to students, and the problem is especially acute in rural areas.

“There couldn’t be a worse time to put another initiative on our counselors and administrators,” said Zdeb. “Their focus right now is on student mental health and making sure kids can graduate. Putting another thing on them is not good timing.”

Odeneal acknowledged the shortage of counselors but said the bill should provide the impetus and the time — two years before it takes effect — for schools to hire more.

Legislation changed to address privacy concerns

The current version of the bill reflects changes made to address questions about privacy.

Groups including the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center argued that the bill would require parents and students to disclose sensitive information such as immigration status in order to get a waiver from the requirement.

“We were able to work with legislators on some meaningful changes to the bill and we have now shifted our position to neutral,” said Christine Sauvé, the center’s community engagement and policy coordinator, said Monday. “Significantly, the updated version involves community partners in the development of the waiver form and allows vulnerable students to opt out due to privacy concerns.”

The changes were important to protect immigrant and LGBTQ+ students, students who are victims of child abuse and neglect, and other vulnerable populations who may not want or be able to disclose why their parents can’t sign a waiver, Sauvé said.

“The updated bill also adds a requirement for school districts to take reasonable steps to provide language access to students and families with limited English proficiency throughout the FAFSA submission and opt-out process, ensuring that materials will be translated into the language spoken by the family,” Sauvé said.

Hannah Dellinger covers K-12 education and state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at hdellinger@chalkbeat.org.

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