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Bill To Make The FAFSA A Graduation Requirement Raises Concerns


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a document that students can choose to fill out so they can receive federal money to pay for college. The Florida Senate committee for education recently discussed a bill proposed by Senator Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) that would require high school students to complete the FAFSA in order to receive their high school diploma.

“The true intent of this bill is to make sure students who are graduating understand that there is money or that there could be money that’s available to them if they just fill out this FAFSA form,” Cruz said.

According to the bill, if a student doesn’t want to fill out the FAFSA their parent can submit a written request opting them out or the student can write it themselves if they are 18. Senator Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) has reservations about what the bill would do to students whose parents aren’t as involved with their kids’ schooling.

“I would hate to see that hold up that child’s graduation who is working hard in every other aspect, but this does require that parent participation at a level that’s different than before,” Stargel said.

Cruz said part of the reason for this bill is that there is a shortage of advisors in Florida schools, making it harder for students to access important information that could help them pay for their higher education.

“If you are someone like me who was the first to go to college in my family, I needed the guidance of who knew the system. That was my guidance counselor,” Cruz said. “Guidance counselors nowadays are just test proctors. They don’t have the opportunity to provide any guidance.”

Stargel isn’t alone in her concerns about the bill. Program Director of the Student Debt Crisis Organization, Cody Hounanian, said he sees both pros and cons.

“I do understand the complications; the unfair parts of this are for students who don’t intend on going to college or don’t have the family support or financial education or awareness to apply for a FAFSA and it seems punitive to withhold their high school diploma,” Hounanian said.

Florida wouldn’t be the first state to pass legislation like this. Louisiana started requiring students to fill out the FAFSA back in 2018. Since then, the state has seen a record number of students apply for college directly following graduation. 

“There is no doubt that it is increasing our post-secondary enrollment, whether that’s in our two-year institutions or in our four-year institutions and specifically we’ve seen a lot of that in our two-year,” said Vice President of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Tony Davis. He believes the law has done a lot for Louisiana students.

“It is simply opening up doors, again these are students in many cases that the students prior to this legislation that were not filling out the FAFSA were stopping and not going to continue any further education.”

Davis said Louisiana has seen a number of organizations, including banks that have stepped in to help families fill out the FAFSA. These efforts are aimed at ensuring students have the financial literacy skills to know exactly what they and their parents are applying for. He believes Florida might be able to see the same kind of support from the community.

“I think that you’ll see the same thing there. When you say we don’t want to see this debt crisis get worse, I think the same thing goes for your community that doesn’t want to see it happen either,” Davis said. “If you think about every community around the state where there’s large high schools and population centers-- whether it’s at United Way or it’s Boys and Girls Club or whatever that may be-- there are lots of groups that say ‘look we want to see these kids go on and get more education, we want to see our community be more educated.’ We recognize as this is a way to do it we don’t want to see more debt occur. No one wants to see that for our students.”

Cruz’s bill doesn’t talk about financial literacy, and many students don’t understand that the money they’re being offered includes loans, which will have to be paid back. They may also not be aware of turning down certain programs.

Florida State University senior and first generation college student, JJ Jerez says he wished he had knew more about how the FAFSA worked before spending his loan money. He had been using the aid for three years before he almost ran out because he didn’t realize that his loan was capped. He had just entered his final year at the time.

“If I would have known at fall, I would have been able to prepare and prep for this[shortfall] a lot earlier on,” Jerez said. “It put my family in the situation where now I have this couple thousand dollars of expenses that I’m not going to be able to cover. Thankfully, my parents are hard workers and always have been, so they are going to be there to support me and thankfully that’s what we’re doing. But it is putting a strain on them, unfortunately, this couple of months that we’re dealing with it.”

Cruz still plans to move forward with her bill and create more opportunities for students to gain access to federal aid.

“I think it’s important that these students know what’s available to them through Pell grant and grant money and many of them have no idea that this is available so that’s part of the reason,” she said. I know there are several people that have second thoughts about withholding a diploma for this but, like I said, it’s written in the bill that students can waive this requirement if their parents request a waiver in writing or if they’re over 18 years old and they request a waiver in writing.”

Cruz has said she is open to working on the bill more to address any concerns.