News Local/State

New Law Will Require Illinois Students To Apply For Financial Aid

Screen shot of FAFSA website on mobile phone.

Carter Staley/NPR Illinois

Illinois is now the third state to require graduating high school seniors fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA form.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the change into law late last week. The legislation takes effect beginning with the 2020-21 school year. The bill was an initiative championed by Pritzker, said state Sen. Andy Manar, a central Illinois Democrat who sponsored the legislation. 

Louisiana passed legislation mandating high school seniors fill out the form several years ago, and now the state has the highest FAFSA completion rate in the country; 79% of Louisiana 12th grade students completed the FAFSA as of June this year, compared to 63% of high school seniors in Illinois. 

Texas passed a similar measure this summer.

The goal of the new measure, Manar said, is to provide financial aid to more Illinois students from low-income and working class backgrounds. 

He said some Illinois school districts already encourage students to fill out the FAFSA, while “other school districts have little to no effort in terms of the transition from high school to higher education after high school.”

He said the legislation will standardize the process across the state. State agencies including the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Community College Board plan to assist school districts implement the legislation.

The change is an opportunity for state government to take a more direct approach to help prepare Illinois students for post-secondary education and careers, Manar said.

The legislation does provide for exceptions to the new rule; Illinois seniors will still receive a high school diploma if they’re unable to fill out the FAFSA form due to extenuating circumstances.

Manar expects the change to result in better outcomes for students after they leave high school.

“We will have greater completion rates in post-secondary education, including community colleges, universities, and vocational and trade programs,” he said.

Pritzker signed the legislation days after ProPublica Illinois and the Wall Street Journal broke the news that affluent families in the Chicago suburbs were using guardianship status to qualify their children for federal, state and institutional financial aid.

On one end of the spectrum you have incredibly wealthy people gaming the system,” Manar said. “On the polar opposite end of the spectrum you have families that struggle, first generation potential college students that don’t even know how to step through the door let alone with door to step through. So, that’s a barrier.”

Manar said this new law will help break down those barriers for low-income and first generation students “who don’t have that clear unambiguous path forward to what happens to them after high school. That’s a major plus.”

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines