To help pave the way to college, a new state law will require Illinois high school seniors to complete an application for federal student aid in order to graduate.

The law, which goes into effect in fall 2020, takes a page from Chicago Public Schools, where about three in four high school seniors last school year completed the  Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA. The school district requires seniors to finish a detailed post-secondary plan in order to graduate. 

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The new law allows families to sign a waiver, for those not wanting to complete the application.

In June, the school board updated the district’s school rating system to factor in high schools’ success helping students complete their post-high school plans, known as “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” plans.  A district spokeswoman said Chicago would continue tracking FAFSA completion rates and work with schools to ensure the state requirement is met. 

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the law Friday to nudge more students to access federal dollars for their post-secondary plans, whether they’re paying for college or vocational schools. 

“This law will help give students the freedom to choose the pathway that’s best for them – not the path they’re forced down because nobody gave them the information to explore their options,” Pritzker said in a statement. “My administration will do everything in our power to make college an option for any student who wants that opportunity.”

Illinois became the second state to enact such a measure. 

While the latest district data show that more than 75% of Chicago Public School seniors last school year completed a FAFSA as of late June, only 59% of Illinois seniors did so, putting the state ninth in the nation. 

Danny Mason is director of teacher support at the Chicago office of OneGoal, a nonprofit which offers one-on-one coaching to help low-income high school students transition to college. He said that the college debt crisis has forced educators to be more proactive about supporting students’ post-graduation journey. Families have to be more financially literate, he said, and have conversations about paying for college earlier in high school than before.

He said the district created a task list for seniors.

“One of those tasks is getting these federal dollars,” he said.

Mason said that the state and districts should focus their energy on figuring out ways to help students who are ineligible for FAFSA or are limited in seeking financial aid, particularly immigrants and undocumented students.

Emily Goldman, policy manager at the Partnership for College Completion, predicts that Illinois will see an increase in students applying for financial aid, much like what happened in Louisiana, the first state to pass a FAFSA graduation requirement. Louisiana now leads the nation in FAFSA completion rates.

She said that the requirement should come with support for students and families in districts with historically low FAFSA completion rates. Goldman emphasized that “counselors should continue to be diligent about protecting undocumented students and students with other barriers to FAFSA completion outside of their control,” by ensuring that the opt-out process is seamless.