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Just about half of American high school seniors applied for federal financial aid last year. Those who didn't may have missed out on free money for college. Texas is trying to fix that. It's now the second state to require all graduating high school students to apply for college financial aid. As KUT's Claire McInerny reports, many hope the new Texas law will make it easier for students to go to college and finish their degrees.
CLAIRE MCINERNY, BYLINE: It's a slow, summer day at the College Hub, a student support center in Austin. But staffers Brianna McDonough and Jaime Ayala see busier times ahead.
JAIME AYALA: Texas in general, like - schools have, like, one adviser for a hundred-plus students. And so can you imagine?
BRIANNA MCDONOUGH: But only - yeah, only 50 of them are filling it out.
AYALA: Yeah, yeah. Only 50% are filling it out.
MCINERNY: They're talking about the number of Texas high school students who generally complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. This year, it was 55% - just under the national average. The new Texas law aims to boost that number by requiring graduating seniors to fill out the FAFSA or its state equivalent. The FAFSA is the only way to get the U.S. government's help paying for college. Ayala says students have all kinds of reasons for not filling out the form.
AYALA: Students make assumptions based on what they've heard from either counselors or other students. And so some students just think, like, oh, no. I think we make too much, and we're not going to qualify, or I don't want student loans. You know, I don't want to do FAFSA because I don't want to get a student loan.
MCINERNY: But students who opt out are leaving a lot of money on the table, specifically from federal Pell grants that don't have to be paid back. According to the personal finance website NerdWallet, 2018 high school graduates missed out on $2.6 billion in free money for college because of uncompleted FAFSAs.
ISAAC TORRES: I think that the requirement to complete the FAFSA is a good one.
MCINERNY: Isaac Torres works for E3 Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on how education impacts the economy in central Texas.
TORRES: For an increasing number of low-income first-generation students, it's going to be that critical first step that gets them to enroll full-time and to complete their degree on time.
MCINERNY: And it's not just about going to college. Torres hopes a higher FAFSA completion rate means more students will benefit from more financial aid and, ultimately, finish their degrees.
TORRES: Because every job, really, in 2020 that pays a living wage requires some type of post-secondary credential.
MCINERNY: Louisiana was the first state to require that students apply for college financial aid. And it now has the highest FAFSA completion rate in the country. But Texas is six times the size of Louisiana, and many of those students will need help filling out the complicated form.
AYALA: And that means more manpower, more processing time. That means more universities getting, you know, the applications, more community colleges getting these applications. And it also means more people to sit with students and sort of understand these applications and help them fill them out.
MCINERNY: Ayala, the College Hub advisor, is already thinking about how to prepare for the 2021-22 school year, when the new law goes into effect. And he says there's another hurdle. In order to complete the FAFSA, students have to share their citizenship status as well as their parents' Social Security numbers.
AYALA: Oftentimes, we see that students who may have a parent that's undocumented, they're afraid to disclose that information because of sort of anything sort of immigration-related and just as a concern that, you know, their family will get deported.
MCINERNY: Right now he advises those students not to provide information they aren't comfortable sharing. He's not sure how his advice will change, though, once the law goes into effect.
For NPR News, I'm Claire McInerny in Austin.
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