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Newark’s Class of 2022 will have to apply for financial aid to graduate

Weequahic High School in Newark, N.J.

The Newark School Board has adopted a measure requiring graduating seniors to fill out the FAFSA or a similar financial aid form. Above, Weequahic High School in Newark, N.J.

Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat

Starting next school year, Newark’s rising seniors will have to apply for federal or state financial aid to graduate. 

High school seniors in Newark public schools will be required to complete the federal financial aid form, known as the FAFSA, or, for those who are undocumented, the New Jersey Alternative Financial Aid Application, a new rule mandates. Newark’s school board adopted the measure Tuesday.  

Alternately, parents or guardians can submit an exemption form to their child’s school counselor by June 1 of their senior year, the policy states.

The FAFSA unlocks access to federal grants, including Pell grants, as well as work-study programs and loans to pay for college. Data suggests that students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, are more likely to enroll in college after high school graduation when they complete the federal aid forms.

Superintendent Roger León initially proposed the measure at a school board retreat last summer, and the school board quickly approved it. But days later, the board rescinded that decision for lack of community input, consideration for students who might be exempt, and written plans for implementation.

Over the past few months, a 13-member committee that included principals, vice principals, school counselors, students, board members, and community partners reviewed FAFSA mandates that have been implemented in other states, said Mary Harvey, the district’s director of student life.

She added that the Newark committee used Texas’ mandate as a template.

Other states, including Louisiana and Illinois, also have similar requirements. New Jersey, California, and Hawaii, among other states, have proposed bills to make filling out financial aid applications a statewide mandate for high school graduation.

The push to tie FAFSA completion to graduation comes as college enrollment and FAFSA applications have taken a dip nationwide during the pandemic. Through June 11, 51.6% of U.S. high school seniors have completed the aid application, a 5.3% decline compared to last academic year.

Newark has previously made efforts to encourage students to fill out the FAFSA. A citywide coalition sponsored workshops and outreach to increase the percentage of Newark students applying for aid.

The district has previously added graduation requirements that the state does not need, Harvey said. For example, she said, Newark requires four years of math and science, while the district requires three years of those subjects. Newark Public Schools also has seniors complete a thesis and 18 hours of community service. 

A “critical component of implementation” of the new rule includes training staff, parents, and students on the application process, the policy states.

The district will also start informing students in the eighth grade about the FAFSA mandate, Harvey said.

At least one parent who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting said she doesn’t support the new mandate.

“I was glad to see you had that waiver up there because you know what? We’re going to all sign it,” said Cassandra Dock.

Board Co-Vice President Vereliz Santana said the district could be a model for the state as it’s the first to implement this graduation requirement.

“I think I would have benefitted from this policy because I had to fill it out myself,” said Santana, who attended Stockton University after high school. “It is critical. We are trying to remove barriers for our children, and we know that higher education is not for every student but for those who do choose to pursue higher education, this is a tool and resource that could help them achieve those higher education goals.”

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