A new state law designed to broaden access to federal financial aid will require all Illinois high school students to complete the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid before graduating, starting next year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker visited Eisenhower High School in Decatur on Friday to sign the bill, saying it will give thousands more students access to financial aid and affordable options for college.
“We want to be the kind of state that makes college affordable so our brightest minds can stay right here in Illinois,” Pritzker said in his prepared remarks.
Starting with the 2020-21 school year, students will have to complete the FAFSA, or an alternative state form created by the Illinois State Board of Education, as part of their high school graduation requirements.
But students, or their parents, can opt out by completing a waiver stating that they understand what the FAFSA is and choose not to fill it out.
And high schools can’t withhold diplomas from students who are unable to meet the requirement because of “extenuating circumstances,” the legislation says.
That provision covers students from families with “substantial incomes” who won’t qualify for income-based financial aid, as well as students who are entering the armed forces, students with parents who are in prison or “uncooperative,” students with limited broadband access, students who are part of the child-welfare system and undocumented students.
The chief sponsor, state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said not every student wants to complete the FAFSA, which is why an opt-out provision was included.
“This measure would allow us to maximize the number of students who apply for and receive federal student aid without creating an undue burden that stops some students from graduating,” he said in a statement.
How Illinois compares
The bill also requires school districts to help students and parents complete the financial aid applications as needed.
Currently, only 59 percent of Illinois students fill out the FAFSA, which is used to determine eligibility for federal and state need-based financial aid programs, including federal Pell grants and state Monetary Award Program grants.
Most colleges, including the University of Illinois and other state universities, also use FAFSA information to determine their own financial aid packages for applicants.
“Even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, there are loans that are available to students at lower interest rates” that families could be eligible for through the FAFSA, added Michelle Trame, the UI’s director of student financial aid.
Pritzker said FAFSA completion rates have “soared” in other states that have made it universal.
$552.5 million in aid
Having more students complete the FAFSA will send more federal aid to Illinois students, he said.
During 2016-17 school year, 142,235 Illinois students received just over $552.5 million through federal Pell grants, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.
“Anything that we could continue to do to encourage students to file the FAFSA and make sure they’re aware and understand the options that are out there ... I think can only help students,” Trame said. “I think more education is always a good thing.”
The FAFSA can be “daunting” for parents, at least the first time, she said. High schools across the state, including in Champaign-Urbana, host evening workshops with college financial aid administrators to help students and parents complete the process.
The new law will likely expand the pool of students eligible for state MAP grants, a program that runs short of money each year. Last year, it awarded grants to about 129,000 students, but about 82,000 more were shut out because there wasn’t enough funding to pay for all who qualified, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.
The budget approved by legislators and Pritzer allocated another $50 million for the MAP program this year, but ISAC says demand will still exceed available funding for the grants.
Pritzker “looks forward to working with lawmakers to increase their availability in future years,” said spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh.