“We made the Fafsa an opt-out situation,” he said, “rather than opt-in.”
Student advocates say the move toward a Fafsa requirement is generally helpful, as long as schools provide training and support for high school counselors, and help for students and families in tackling the form.
The ability to opt out is also crucial so the policies don’t become a barrier to graduation, said MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance with the college access network. A student who, for instance, plans to join the military immediately upon graduation should not have to fill out the Fafsa, she said.
The new rules in Texas and Illinois will allow students to request exemptions or waivers. The Illinois policy is set to take effect in the 2020-21 school year, while Texas’ will begin a year later.
“It is a very well-intentioned attempt to close a gap we see,” Ms. Thompson said.
Overall Fafsa filing rates, taking into account students who are already in college as well as high school students, have risen in recent years, according to the college access network. But a slight drop in the filing rate for high school seniors in the class of 2019 was “discouraging,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the access network. It may be, he said, that a strong economy is moving more students to go directly into the work force instead of going to college or pursuing technical degrees.
In recent years, the federal government has taken steps to simplify the Fafsa, and to make it easier to complete. The form may now be filled out on phones, using a mobile app or a mobile-friendly website. And the Fafsa now uses information from older tax returns so families’ financial information is more readily available when they tackle the form.
Many students and families use the Internal Revenue Service’s online data retrieval tool to quickly transfer financial information from their federal tax returns onto the Fafsa form. But the recent federal tax overhaul created new schedules that the tool does not yet recognize, according to a letter sent to the Education Department and copied to the I.R.S. late last week by Senator Maggie Hassan, eight other Democratic senators and Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
The senators asked for assurance that any mistakes would not subject students to a more “arduous” process that might discourage them from seeking financial help.