Indiana lawmakers want more students to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, but can't agree how to get there. A committee changed a bill Monday that would have required students to file, after critics raised concerns about it adding more work for schools.
It's the third year in a row that Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) has filed a bill to require that Hoosier high schoolers fill out the FAFSA. The Senate-approved version would have required students to fill it out or have a parent, school principal or counselor sign a waiver, but the House Education Committee took that part out.
Now, Senate Bill 82 requires a notice about the form and its importance be posted online by the Commission for Higher Education, and that schools send families notice too. Families would be able to respond to that notice indicating whether or not they plan to file the FAFSA and if they want help with it.
Leising said she's OK with the change – for now.
"I prefer the bill as it was originally passed by the Senate, but whatever it takes to keep the bill moving," she said.
Indiana's FAFSA filing rate has lagged in recent years – something supporters of the bill said contributes to workforce shortages, declining enrollment in higher education, and business opportunities being offered to Indiana's neighbors.
Josh Garrison with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education said data shows major drops in filing rates during the pandemic.
"When we look at our FAFSA filing rates here in Indiana over the last two years it is decreased by 18 percent," he said. "It's decreased 12 percent for high school seniors and 20 percent for renewing students."
Garrison cited a report indicating that 2021 Hoosier graduates missed out on $65 million in Pell Grant funding because of it, resulting in them taking out more loans, paying for school themselves or not going at all. He said the filing rate decline has hit students in rural areas, Black and Brown students, and students from low-income families the hardest.
"If you look at a high school's free and reduced lunch rate, you can almost predict their FAFSA filing rate," he said.
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The proposal is a lingering priority for more than just Leising and CHE.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has again identified the legislation as a top priority this session. Jason Bearce, the chamber's vice president of education and workforce development, said the chamber continues to prioritize the bill because it remains critical for equity among students and workforce development.
"The reasons and the necessity for this policy have not changed," he said. "One thing we cannot do is continue to fail to take action on this."
Some who support the bill said they prefer the filing requirement included in the Senate's version, but appreciate any effort to increase the number of students who file.
But groups representing K-12 schools and their administrators continue to push back on the proposed mandate. Their core concern is the added work it would place on school counselors and administrators, who would be tasked with ensuring students fill out the form and tracking down waivers from kids who don't.
Tim McRoberts is the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, and said the group has nothing against the FAFSA.
"We have never testified against the importance of FAFSA; we are pro-FAFSA, we are just anti-FAFSA mandate," he said.
The Indiana School Board Association also said it opposes the bill as approved by the Senate, but supports the House's new version as well as the importance of the form.
The new bill passed out of committee with near unanimous support, but could change again soon; it now moves to the House floor for consideration ahead of key deadlines next week.