The National College Attainment Network says Missouri high school graduates missed out on $71.3 million in Pell grants in 2021 because they did not complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. The FAFSA is used to consider eligibility for federal grants, federal loans, and state grants.

Sen. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola

In the 2020-21 academic year, more than 1.7 million high school graduates nationally did not fill out the FAFSA. Just under half of those graduates – about 813,000 students – were Pell Grant-eligible.

State Senator Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola, is proposing to require Missouri high schoolers to fill out the application before graduating.

According to the National College Attainment Network, eight states require students to fill out the FAFSA – Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, California, Alabama, Colorado, New Hampshire and Maryland. Several other states are considering similar measures.

During a Missouri Senate Education Committee about Eslinger’s bill, State Senator Greg Razer, D-Kansas City questioned why schools are not already helping students fill out the form.

“Pell grant funding is not just for four-year institutions, or community colleges,” said Razer. “You can use this for apprenticeships, certificate programs.”

Eslinger, who has a lengthy background in education, said she thinks school counselors are loaded with many other requirements.

“Our kids come into those schoolhouse doors, needing social emotional support, needing help, needing all these things. And so that’s the first that you turn to are your counselors to help those families and to help those children. And so, what’s happened is career education has been pushed back. And they don’t have as much time to get to every student and actually do these individualized things. Whereas some of this work within Senate Bill 703, it’ll give some support to those counselors to be able to do more outreach for our community, for our parents so that more kids have access to this information,” said Eslinger.

“Okay, because this seems like something that quickly pays for itself, you know, especially with students who maybe aren’t on a track for a four-year degree but can get a good paying job. If they just knew that there was the ability to pay for it. People just don’t know,” said Razer.

“The return on investments huge,” said Eslinger. Razer agreed.

During the hearing, there were also discussions about the FAFSA being painful to fill out.

“I thought the FASFA was the worst thing I ever tried to fill out,” said chair Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina. “By the time we sweated over that thing like forever we got to the bottom and came out with a big zero.”

Scott Kimble, with the Missouri Association of School Administrators, supports the bill.

“FAFSA was at one time, if not still, is a difficult thing to wield and get through and we think that’s why it would be good to have our schools working with students to do that,” said Kimble.

He said there was a federal effort to reform the application to make the form a one- page document and have the capability of filling out the FAFSA on a mobile phone. Kimble is not sure if the plan has been completed yet.

There are FAFSA events to help students and their families fill out the application.

Cade Tremain, the University of Central Missouri student president, said the application has changed.

“The first time compared to the most recent time that I filled out the FAFSA, which was just last year, it’s a totally different program. It’s been improved quite a bit,” said Tremain. “It is much simpler, much more user friendly.”

There would be some exceptions in Eslinger’s bill, including if the student is joining the military, a written statement from the student’s parent, or other extenuating circumstances.

The bill would also require students to declare their post-graduation plans prior to finishing 12th grade, with help from the student’s parent or guardian and a school guidance counselor.

The committee is still reviewing the bill. For more information about Senate Bill 703, click here.

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