Counselors in the Val Verde Unified School District urging students to file aid applications. (Photo courtesy of Val Verde Unified School District)

Beyond all the debate about the types and sizes of financial aid for college, one fact matters most for students and parents: You can’t get grants and loans unless you apply for them.

That’s why the Val Verde Unified School District in Riverside County became a pioneer in California two years ago in getting more families to complete the application that helps gain access to state, federal and campus aid.

That school district became the first in California to make completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form a requirement for high school graduation. “This is an opportunity for our kids to get a jump start,” said Michael R. McCormick, the Val Verde district Superintendent. (Parents who refuse to participate can opt out by signing a form.)

Advocates had hoped that Val Verde would be a model for California and boost participation. After all, only about 53 percent of the state’s public school seniors last year completed FAFSA or the state aid application for undocumented students, according to the California Student Aid Commission. But the requirement hasn’t caught on amid mixed results about whether doing so improves the rate of high school graduates enrolling in college. Spirited campaigns continue, however, such as Cash for College, to encourage voluntary completion.

Most of the Val Verde district’s 20,000 students come from low-income families and would be eligible for aid if they applied, McCormick said. District statistics show that the number of state-funded Cal Grants and grants for undocumented students offered to Val Verde seniors rose from 397 in 2016 before the program started to 947 this year, or from about 28 percent to more than 60 percent of the senior classes, although officials say they do not know how many of those grants were used.

So far only one district in California has followed Val Verde — the 9,000-student Perris Union High School District next door. Some other school districts in California are considering the idea. However, Santa Maria Joint Unified High School District in Santa Barbara County voted it down last month amid concerns about the capacity of counseling staff to work with all the students and some privacy worries.

Three other states — Louisiana, Texas and Illinois — have adopted various forms of statewide FAFSA filing requirements in recent years. State legislation, AB 1617, was proposed earlier this year in California, but was stalled, and its backers say they will try again next year.

Proponents say that making FAFSA completion a diploma requirement changes the culture of a school and encourages counselors to reach out to the entire senior class, not just those already on the college track for years. The goal is to entice as many students as possible to enroll in college or workforce training. (The FAFSA application window opened in October and closes in most cases for Californians by early March, although the forms can be filed later for some community college programs.)

“Students who know they have access to financial aid are much more likely to see themselves as being able to go to college,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an advocacy group based in Oakland which supports a statewide FAFSA filing requirement. And since low-income students complete college admissions and aid applications at rates below more affluent ones, a FAFSA requirement with an opt out “will ensure all student have more equitable access,“ she added.

(FAFSA has a reputation for being overly complicated and time-consuming, but reforms have made it easier to automatically connect the form with the required federal tax returns. Bipartisan proposals to further simplify the process are now before Congress.)

In Val Verde and elsewhere, advocates say they have no intention of denying a high school diploma to anyone. FAFSA stragglers receive extra counseling and their parents can sign an opt-out form if they decide they don’t want to participate.

With senior classes of about 1,500, only 11 Val Verde students opted out last year and 10 this year, according to Mark LeNoir, assistant superintendent for educational services. Some had concerns about identity theft — which advocates say is unwarranted since the federal government already has much of the information and the system is highly protected; some said they did not need the aid.

“If a parent is really concerned and anxious, we want to honor their concerns and perceptions, hear them out and try to educate them,” he said. If their concerns remain, then they can opt out, he said.

While some educators support requiring the FAFSA, recent data does not show the mandates have produced large boosts in college enrollment.

Ellie Bruecker, an education policy doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has researched issues of FAFSA completion, said requirements’ impact on college attendance remains uncertain. Districts or states that adopt mandates must also bolster counseling so students and parents can understand their aid offers and make good decisions, she added. Val Verde and the state of Louisiana say they have done so.

With aid offers way up, the college attendance rate for Val Verde graduates improved from 56 percent of the seniors in 2016 to 61 percent in 2017 but then dipped to 59 percent in 2018. State education officials have said that a strong statewide hiring economy has lured some students to jobs rather than attending community college.

Starting with the 2017-18 school year, Louisiana became the first state to mandate high school students to complete a FAFSA or a state aid application, also with opt outs allowed. The highest rate in the nation, 83 percent of Louisiana high school seniors completed the FAFSA this year. (Most of the rest fill out only the state form.)

Despite the new policy, Louisiana’s rate of high school graduates attending college remains at about 58 percent. Officials say that’s because the size of the graduating class has simultaneously increased with the number of students going to college.

Still, proponents say the law is a success since more students probably went to college who might not have considered it before, according to an analysis by the National College Access Network,

“All of this suggests (but notably does not prove) that the mandatory FAFSA policy had a substantial effect on postsecondary enrollment,” the Network analysis said.

Similar laws will be going into effect in Texas and Illinois over the next two years.

In California, Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes said she introduced AB 1617, but then decided not to push it forward this year because the state still is digesting legislation passed last year that requires school districts to make FAFSA forms accessible and provide advice about them. She said she soon will start advocating again for the current bill, now part of two-year legislative process.

Going from encouraging to requiring FAFSAs “was going to be a heavier lift” and Reyes said she wanted counselors and families to understand that opt outs will be allowed. “This is absolutely not going to be punitive,” she said.

Meanwhile, a plan similar to Val Verde’s was voted down 3-2 on Oct. 8 by the board of Santa Maria Joint Union High School District. Staff members in the 7,800-student central coast district said they were worried that there were not enough counselors to carry it out and some parents raised privacy concerns. About 66 percent of its seniors completed FAFSA or state Dream Act forms last year.

Board of Education member Diana Perez, a college counseling expert who supported the proposal, said the plan would have started as a one-year pilot to see if it needed “any fine tuning.” She said she was disappointed by the defeat and hopes the measure can be revived. “I feel this would have served many more of our students,” she said, noting that some high school seniors don’t know what they want to do after graduation and should have the option of college with financial aid.

Dr. Carol Karamitsos, a Santa Maria board member who voted against the proposal, said not enough outreach to parents was conducted in advance. A physician, she said she is not unalterably opposed to the FAFSA requirement but that she wanted “to slow this process down” and consider other possible models to boost completion numbers.

“Is a graduation requirement what we have to do? I don’t know. I don’t think we have explored a lot of other things,” she said.

Story originally published by EdSource.