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California High School Seniors Will Soon Be Required To Apply For Financial Aid For College

A large school bulletin board with colorful paper on the border has a poster showing different types of federal student aid: grants, loans and work-study.
A poster at Alhambra High School explains the various forms of financial aid available for college-bound students.
(Chava Sanchez
LAist )
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As part of the California budget package, high school seniors will soon be required to fill out a financial aid application for college.

Students will be able to opt out, though, and the mandate won't go into effect until at least the 2022-2023 school year.

Submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and, for resident undocumented students, a California Dream Act application, makes a student eligible for government grants, low-interest loans, and scholarships for college.

Just 55% of L.A. County's high school class of 2021 completed a FAFSA or California Dream Act application, according to data from the California Student Aid Commission.

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Supporters of the new requirement hope it will encourage all high school students — and especially those who are underrepresented in higher education, including low-income students and students of color — to, at least, consider continuing their studies.

State and federal financial aid can generally be used to pay for tuition and living expenses at four year universities, community colleges or trade schools.

Money For College Left On The Table

The universal FAFSA requirement was backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom's senior policy advisor for higher education, Lande Ajose. One reason, Ajose told LAist earlier this year, is simply that federal grant money for low-income students (Pell Grants) is being left on the table, because many qualifying students don't apply, and many may not even be aware of the grants.

And California has a lot of low-income, would-be students.

"In the aggregate, we are a state where many, many students cannot afford to go to college," Ajose said.

Pell Grants are worth up to $6,495 for the 2021-22 school year, and there are proposals in Washington to increase (and perhaps double) that amount and to expand eligibility to undocumented immigrants. On top of Pell Grants, low-income students who meet the GPA requirements can receive Cal Grants that fully cover tuition at UC, CSU and community colleges.

Still, the high cost of living — and, of course, the pandemic — derails many Californians' higher education plans.

The FAFSA Is Daunting. But It Could Get Easier.

The FAFSA is notoriously lengthy and complicated for students and their families to fill out. But, by the time California high school seniors are required to fill it out. it should be shorter, thanks to federal legislation,

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Ajose also hopes that students will eventually be able to fill out a single form for financial aid and other support they might need to attend college, including food and housing assistance, child care and transportation. This proposal, and another to create a single application system for UC, CSU and community colleges, are among the recommendations laid out in a recent report from the governor's pandemic Recovery with Equity Taskforce, which Ajose heads.

Who Will Help Students Apply?

Lina Calderon-Morin, deputy director of the Southern California College Access Network, said she supports the FAFSA rule but said it doesn't guarantee that more students will go to college.

"It's a form you can fill out and never do anything with," she said. "The right supports to actually continue to apply to college, to enroll, to register — all of those things have to be there, as well."

Calderon-Morin also worries that the task of helping students apply for financial aid will largely fall to already overburdened high school counselors. She said schools could expand their partnerships with college access organizations to help meet the need.

Have a question about access to higher education?
Jill Replogle covers the pathways to higher education and the obstacles students face along the way.

Corrected July 16, 2021 at 5:08 PM PDT
In an earlier version of this story we incorrectly stated that completing a financial aid application will be a requirement for high school graduation. It will not be a condition of graduation. We regret the error.