Jan 26, 2017

Percentage of completed applications jumps from 2 percent at this time last year to 26 percent now, with months left to meet various deadlines

BATON ROUGE, La.- A study group convened by the Louisiana Department of Education to identify means of supporting students in need of financial aid for universities, colleges, and workforce training programs has found that the rate of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA) has increased by 24 percentage points over the rate at this time in 2016.
"We're pleased to see that high school seniors and their families are making financial planning a priority, especially this early in the process," said State Superintendent of Education John White. The state's deadline for completion is July 1, but various spring deadlines are established by institutions so students have time to review financial aid award packages prior to graduating high school. "We are hopeful this will become a trend, and in turn, more of our students will further their education and training after high school."
The FAFSA is for all forms of federal financial aid, including Pell grants, work study programs, and federal student loans available to students to aid in the cost of education and technical training beyond high school. It is also required for Louisiana graduates to achieve TOPS and TOPS Tech scholarships, which can also be used for college and technical training.
Louisiana's FAFSA completion rate by high school seniors has long been unremarkable. In the 2014-15 school year, it sat at 48 percent for public schools, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2012-13, but remained below the national average of 55 percent.
By not completing the FAFSA at the national average rate of 55 percent, Louisiana students forego roughly $54 million a year in federal grants, state opportunities, and other funding for postsecondary education. This is particularly troubling at a time when the state's premier scholarship program is not providing students full funding.
In recent years, Louisiana has implemented a comprehensive plan to address those challenges. The study group, which comprises nearly 50 representatives from various state education and workforce entities, met in Baton Rouge on Thursday, in part, to review the progress that has been made in that effort.
Among the highlights, the group reported:

  • Of the 41,825 public school seniors for which data has been reported, 10,850--approximately 26 percent of applications--had been submitted by January 13, 2017. Last year, at the same time, only 797--about 2 percent of applications--had been turned in by that date.
  • Of the 439 total schools reported, 369 are above and 70 are at the same level as where they were on the same date--January 13--in 2016.
  • Of the 315 total public schools reported, 273 are above and 42 are at the same level as where they were on the same date--January 13--in 2016.

The rise in the number of completed applications is promising for students and for the higher education community, said Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Joseph C. Rallo.
"Completion of the FAFSA provides a qualified student and the institution they seek to attend access to significant federal funds to help pay for college," Rallo said. "By bringing more federal dollars to Louisiana, each institution can then use its own scholarship money to help even more students achieve their dream of pursuing a program in higher education."
The influx can be attributed to several key changes to the financial aid process. For the first time last year, the U.S. Department of Education opened the application window in October instead of January, for example, and Louisiana dedicated more attention and resources to the cause.
More than ever before, high school counselors statewide were encouraged by the Department to advise all students--not just university-bound ones--to apply for federal aid, and they were given a toolkit of applicable resources to utilize.
Lissa Copeskey, a senior counselor at Northeast High School in East Baton Rouge Parish, is one of many professional counselors in Louisiana who took note. About 75 percent of the seniors at her school have completed the financial aid process, to date, and she is aiming for 100 percent by graduation.
Copeskey conducts individual class and small group meetings with students to instruct them on how to complete their part of the application process, she said, and she hosts friendly competitions among the classes to get more students to fill out the form, among other efforts.
"Many didn't understand that completing the FAFSA drives the engine for TOPS money, for Pell grant money," Copeskey said. "I've tried to demystify the process and make it less intimidating by adding fun and competition. The students have been really responsive."
Copeskey also encourages the students and their families to tap additional resources offered by partners like the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA).
"LOSFA is dedicated to ensuring equity of access," said LOSFA Executive Director Dr. Sujuan Boutté. "This involves informing all students of the opportunities available and actively assisting students with all facets of the college application and access process."
Among its many initiatives, LOSFA hosts events, like "FAFSA Fridays" and "FAFSA Frenzy," to assist families in navigating the process.
"Lack of information is one reason many believe they are simply ineligible, which forces them to struggle to pay out of pocket or not pursue postsecondary education," said Barrye Bailey, an education specialist for the Office of Student Opportunities who was a financial aid adviser and active member of the study group before she joined the Department of Education. "Students will now have those crucial conversations about life beyond high school and how college and post-secondary training factors into the picture."

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