Louisiana is Right to Scrap a Mandatory FAFSA

This morning, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to let high school students graduate if they do not file the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

This smart move redresses a tragic reality: artificially increasing college access has meant that young people who ought not go to college are going anyway. The state’s very low graduation rates demonstrate how many students leave college with debt but no degree.

There are other good reasons for this decision, too. Cade Brumley, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, told me, “Parents should not be required to submit their financial information to the federal government for their child to receive a high school diploma. Not only is it an intrusion of personal privacy and liberty, but also creates a bureaucratic process unrelated to the merits of earning a high school diploma.”

Increasing college access seemed like a good idea to Louisiana when it was the first state to make FAFSA completion—or an opt-out form—mandatory. But colleges nationwide are now extremely over-enrolled. Access has come with huge, unacceptable costs. In exchange for the hope of graduation, new college students usually leave their hometown communities behind and stay out of the full-time workforce while they attend classes. For large numbers of students, that hope is misplaced. They haven’t graduated in four or even six years.

Their hope becomes the shame of being a college dropout, now disconnected from home and in their twenties with a very thin resume.

Graduation rates are meager in Louisiana. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “What Will They Learn?” database, 17 out of 20 Louisiana colleges have four-year graduation rates under 50 percent. At the top of the rankings, Centenary College (52%) and Loyola University (54%) make Tulane (77%) look like a magician.

At the bottom of the order, 10 Louisiana colleges fail to graduate even a quarter of their students after four years. The very bottom includes Southern University–New Orleans (8%), Southern University and A&M College (10%), and Grambling State University (12%).

These numbers are lower than rates reported elsewhere, such as at College Factual. But the higher numbers do not provide much solace: College Factual reports Grambling State University’s four-year graduation rate at 29 percent.

Looking at six-year graduation rates can help reduce completion concerns, but it also reinforces concern about how many students are out of play and out of their home communities for a massive part of their young lives. Look at Southern University and A&M College (SU and A&M), which has about 6,000 undergraduates.

SU and A&M’s 60 percent freshman retention rate, according to College Factual, means that a lot of students figure things out fast and leave early. They only lost a year or less, and maybe they got something out of their brief time in Baton Rouge. Since the six-year graduation rate is 32 percent—including the dropouts—those who survive the first year have a one-in-two chance of finishing by year six. Most students take five or six years to graduate.

As for Grambling State University (GSU), College Factual reports a 77 percent retention rate and a 37 percent six-year graduation rate. This means that of the students who make it to year two, only half get their degree by year six. Out of GSU’s roughly 4,500 undergraduates, most do not have excellent outcomes.

Fortunately, GSU’s tuition is not expensive—under $4,000 per semester for state residents—so student debt normally comes more from living expenses. SU and A&M students are in a similar boat, with tuition under $5,000 plus living expenses in Baton Rouge.

The students who didn’t finish could have gone to a career college, procured an even less expensive two-year degree, and started their working lives with vigor in year three.

State school boards probably do not think carefully enough about college as it really plays out for the high school students who graduate. Instead, they blithely buy into the idea that more college-going is automatically better. The fact is, under the circumstances today, it’s worse. Colleges need to right-size, and state school boards need to help them.

Louisiana’s smart, compassionate change to stop requiring the FAFSA means that colleges will have higher proportions of students who actually think they are cut out for college. The kids who don’t understand that a Pell Grant won’t be enough to cover their living expenses—even though, like other states, Louisiana also offers its own grants—won’t be tricked into embarking on an often misguided flight from adult responsibility.

Louisiana led the way in student access to college when it seemed to make sense. Now, Louisiana is leading the way in fixing the problem it caused, at least for students at the margin. Requiring the FAFSA has been a tragic case of unintended negative consequences. When you nudge people to do what they don’t really want to do, you get lots of them doing what they really shouldn’t do.

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image


One thought on “Louisiana is Right to Scrap a Mandatory FAFSA”

  1. It will be interesting to see if Louisiana’s high school graduation rate increases now that they have dropped this requirement, and it should be noted that in 2021, even with the mandate, only 68% completed the form. See: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/02/09/more-states-may-require-fafsas-high-school-graduation

    When Maine proposed this a couple of decades ago (without a waiver), my response was that the only thing it would accomplish is reducing the percentage of students graduating from high school. Reality is that a 16-year-old boy can make $40K/year as a lobster sternman or truck driver and a girl can do just as well by becoming a single mother, I’ve seen way too many do it.

    The other thing with the FAFSA is that it is not just the student’s income & assets, but those of the parents — including a noncustodial parent. Way too many divorced parents use their children as cudgels against each other, and this only exacerbates that.

    Giving teenagers an excuse not to graduate is stupid — and that’s really all this accomplishes. Louisiana may have gotten 68% of its students to file a FAFSA — but they only have an 83% high school graduation rate, and that’s a way bigger problem!!!

    Second, in fairness to the colleges, one does have to be careful with graduation rate statistics for two reasons. First, if a student transfers to a second college and graduates from there, the student is still listed as not having graduated from the first college. This is a real problem for some fairly good “starter” colleges, including some community colleges and HBCUs.

    Often located in rural areas and usually quite small, they concentrate on freshman success. The problem is that unless one wants to major in the one or two good programs they have (usually elementary education and something else), one has to transfer somewhere else as a sophomore. This hurts both their freshman attrition and graduation rate because the the kid often did graduate, often in four years, but from somewhere else.

    And second, we fought 20 years of war with soldiers largely called up from Guard and Reserve units, and that includes a large number of college students. Well if you do a couple of tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, and you may come back with completely different
    priorities that no longer involve college, at least not right now. Conversely, a lot of sailors aboard ships are taking distance learning classes in the middle of the night (their time, daytime here) with truly impressive high-speed internet connections. These are somehow being cobbled into degrees.

    My point is that while the graduation rate statistics are truly horrific, they are not always unique headcounts and there is little control for institutions that do a successful job of preparing students to graduate from somewhere else.

    But there is something that Adam doesn’t mention — the fate of those who do graduate. The student with a degree in something like Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies or Social Thought and Political Economy — both real UMass Amherst degrees. Other than throwing rocks at cops, exactly what do these degrees prepare one to do? They may have a degree — but still a very thin resume.

    So cui bono?

    Cui bono?, in English “to whom is it a benefit”?

    The people supporting the FAFSA mandate speak of “[h]igh school students [leaving] $3.75 billion in Pell Grant funding on the table in 2021.”

    That’s like saying that an electrical CooP that put its poles in right, so they didn’t blow over, “left FEMA money on the table.” Or that a state is leaving WIC money on the table because not all its teenagers are pregnant. What an attitude of entitlement!

    That’s my third point — this isn’t about students.
    Instead, it’s about a bloated educational industry attempting to vacuum up every possible Federal dollar to fund its ever expanding largess.

    NO MAS!!!

    That is my third point — I think it is very clear who benefits, and it’s neither the students nor taxpayers.

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