DECATUR — High school students in Illinois will now be required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to graduate, thanks to a bill signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker at Eisenhower High School on Friday.
“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 a statement. “Beginning in the fall of 2020, this law will help give students the freedom to choose the pathway that's best for them — not the pathway they're forced down because nobody gave them the information to explore their options. My administration will do everything in our power to make college an option for any student who wants that opportunity.”
Students will be required to complete the FAFSA or an alternative form created by the Illinois State Board of Education, though students with extenuating circumstances may complete a waiver.
Currently, only 59 percent of students complete the FAFSA application, which ranks Illinois ninth in the country for FAFSA completions. Illinois joins Louisiana as the only states requiring FAFSA completion.
“Not every student wishes to complete the FAFSA and that's why we wanted to make sure we included a provision allowing students to opt out of the requirement,” said state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who sponsored the bill. “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.”
Decatur Superintendent Paul Fregeau said the district knows this will put some additional workload on counselors and is working on a plan.
"It's another avenue to allow kids to explore their opportunities beyond high school and the funding mechanisms that are available," Fregeau said.
Jose Medina graduated from Eisenhower in May and will attend Northwestern University in Evanston in the fall to study biology. He plans to be a doctor. He was afraid his family wouldn't be able to afford college, he said, until he completed his FAFSA.
“I completed the FAFSA and wasn't expecting much,” Medina said. “Then I got two surprises. One was my acceptance to Northwestern and the second, much bigger, was my financial aid letter. I was surprised because my demonstrated financial need was met almost exactly. It was possible to go to Northwestern. I'm going to college and I didn't even have to leave the state.”
He said he thinks that some students don't bother with completing a FAFSA because they, like him, don't think it's worth the trouble. It can be intimidating and confusing for a teenager, but requiring it to be completed before graduation means that counselors will be there to assist, as they assisted him, and that will help.
“That's what my story was,” he said. “Realizing that I had the opportunity to continue my education even though I doubted that I could.”