Ever since Louisiana announced a policy that would mandate financial aid planning for high school graduation (including FAFSA submission as one of four options to satisfy the requirement), NCAN, the college access and success field more broadly, and financial aid observers across the country have wondered what the effect would be on students’ subsequent postsecondary outcomes.
We don’t have to wonder anymore.
Last week, the Louisiana Department of Education announced that the number of high school graduates immediately enrolling in postsecondary education the following fall climbed to an all-time high. That announcement, in turn, came on the heels of an announcement the week before that the high school class of 2018 posted the highest graduation rate in state history.
The high school class of 2018’s graduation rate climbed by 3.2 percentage points to 81.4%. The graduation rate for Black students is above the national average for the first time; these students saw a jump of 5.1 percentage points over 2017 to 78%. Economically disadvantaged students saw their graduation rate rise by nearly three percentage points.
One concern about adding FAFSA as a high school graduation requirement was whether it would be an obstacle to obtaining a high school diploma. The data assuage that concern, at least for the class of 2018.
These additional high school graduates helped to drive the postsecondary enrollers up to record heights as well. There were 1,566 more high school graduates who immediately enrolled in postsecondary education in the class of 2018 than the class of 2017. Those 1,566 students represent a 6.7% increase over the class of 2017 in the number of first-time college freshmen. For the classes of 2015-2017, the average percent change year-over-year was 0.8%.
The enrollment rate for the class of 2018 was 57.4%, which is down 0.3% from the class of 2017 and roughly in line with the first-time freshman enrollment rate dating back to the class of 2015. The important thing to keep in mind is that the state graduated more students from high school and added more than 1,500 new postsecondary enrollers while keeping the postsecondary enrollment rate approximately constant. This should be considered a success, given a hypothesis that at least some of the added enrollment comes from students on the margins who may not have had postsecondary aspirations but for the financial aid access policy (which, notably, went beyond mandating FAFSA submission and included other resources).
The Bayou State also saw a 31% increase in the number of students eligible for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) Scholarship, which is “a program of state scholarships for Louisiana residents who attend either one of the Louisiana Public Colleges and Universities, schools that are a part of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, Louisiana approved Proprietary and Cosmetology Schools or institutions that are a part of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.”
Applying for a TOPS scholarship is another way to satisfy Louisiana’s financial aid planning requirement along with opting out via a nonparticipation form or letter and receiving a school system waiver
All of this suggests (but notably does not prove) that the mandatory FAFSA policy had a substantial effect on postsecondary enrollment. To attribute causality, we should look at the postsecondary enrollment outcomes of other states, preferably neighboring ones, that did not implement mandatory FAFSA policies. Parsimony demands that we not attribute causality to an intervention that has not been tested by an experimental or quasi-experimental methodology. Despite this, we have a seemingly strong correlation between the new implementation of this policy in Louisiana and postsecondary enrollment outcomes of the class of 2018.
Last year, Louisiana was a bright spot in a sluggish 2018-19 FAFSA completion cycle. Last July, NCAN noted, “Louisiana led the way in terms of percentage of high school seniors completing and percent increase in completions. A whopping 25.9 percent more high school seniors (7,778) completed a FAFSA in the current cycle than last, representing an estimated 77.1 percent of seniors completing a FAFSA in the state. Louisiana’s percent increase represents over 19 percent of the entire nation’s increased number of FAFSA completions.” In the 2019-20 cycle, 76.3% of Louisiana’s seniors have completed the FAFSA, second only to Tennessee (76.8%), and completions are up 0.8% year-over-year through May 17.
Not to continue to move the goalposts, but the next question of interest is clearly the spring term and second-year persistence of Louisiana’s class of 2018. Getting more students enrolled in postsecondary education is a success that should be applauded, but the field recognizes that postsecondary enrollment without persistence and completion is not an optimal outcome and does not offer the same individual or societal return on investment as enrolling without completing.
NCAN looks forward to monitoring Louisiana’s class of 2018 and the other states considering policies that would make FAFSA mandatory for high school graduation. Until then, congratulations to Louisiana and its high school class of 2018 for their record outcomes.