Louisiana cooks up a hot recipe for college cash

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

When you think about where to look for sensible, productive, smart rules, your first thought isn’t, “Oh, yeah — high school!” where bans exist on things like wearing shorts, going to the bathroom without a pass and holding hands. And you certainly don’t think, “Oh yeah — Louisiana!” the state where authorities have ruled that you cannot gargle in public and also may not steal an alligator, nor may you tie one to a fire hydrant.

Louisiana also is where former governor and waterlogged piece of presidential timber “Bobby” Jindal left the state so financially decimated that last month it cut $28 million in promised scholarship payments to university students in the midst of the school year. I’m pretty sure that if you stole an alligator while gargling and tied it to the ex-governor, each and every citizen of the Pelican state would very pointedly look the other way.

So when you think about rules for high schools in Louisiana, you’re thinking they probably involve not going to the bathroom with a stolen alligator wearing shorts. But a new requirement for all Louisiana high school seniors could be a pretty smart answer to helping those kids find money for college, since the state could end up stiffing them, too.

Po’ boys are sandwiches, not students

Starting with the next school year, Louisiana will require all high school seniors to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or get a waiver, or they won’t graduate from high school. The policy was adopted because, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, less than half of the state’s public school seniors fill out that essential financial aid form.

“It increases the likelihood that students will enroll in college and will have the financial aid they need to pay for school and then graduate,” says David Levy, co-author of the free book “Filing the FAFSA,” which can be downloaded at Edvisors.com. “I think it’s an excellent move on the part of the state.”

During the 2011-12 school year, there were about 2 million students who didn’t file the FAFSA but who would have qualified for about $9.5 billion in federal Pell Grants if they had applied for aid, Levy said. Those students also may have qualified for $2.9 billion in state and school grants. “There’s a lot of money being left,” Levy says.

Sorry, the ’gators ate my FAFSA

Another advantage of requiring every graduating student to file a FAFSA is that it could bring aid to families who assume they make too much money to qualify for financial support. While families above the median income may not get Pell Grants, they can still qualify for school-based aid, notes Reecy Aresty, author of “How To Pay For College Without Going Broke” and the website PaylessForCollege.com.

“I think it’s a great idea. If a student is going to an expensive private school, or even one like the University of Michigan, they’re all $65,000 a year,” Aresty says. “The only way they won’t get need-based aid is if the family’s adjusted gross income is $325,000, and most families don’t make anywhere near that.”

It’s natural that all kinds of families find the FAFSA daunting. It’s a 103-question form and, while there have been some recent improvements, it’s still much more complicated than it needs to be. But without it, there’s no chance of a student getting any kind of need-based financial aid from colleges and universities, and they can’t apply for any federal student loans. That leaves those students depending on private student loans, which lack the payment benefits and flexibility of federal student loans.

Kids whose families don’t slog through the FAFSA either end up with big college debt or skipping higher education altogether because they think they can’t afford it. In a world where the majority of jobs soon will require some kind of advanced degree, it’s something no state can afford. I hope that Michigan and every other state will follow Louisiana’s example, and make sure they devote the resources to helping families handle the ABCs (and down to the XYZs) of the FAFSA.

Once those kids get to college, they need to buckle down, study hard and graduate on time. That means no sophomoric pranks, like sending a pile of pizzas to that fraternity down the street. In Louisiana, that earns you a $500 fine. Especially if it’s delivered by an alligator.


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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”