A new law that took effect with the 2020-2021 school year requires every Illinois public high school senior to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to graduate. With students struggling with remote education and family finances perhaps stretched by the pandemic, college plans may seem more up in the air than ever. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) has added new initiatives to help students and their families complete the FAFSA.

“With many students and families facing illness and loss of loved ones, financial distress, and all the challenges of remote learning, it can be hard to handle the now, much less consider the future,” said Eric Zarnikow, executive director of ISAC. “But as we look to better days ahead for next fall, we want to make sure our high school seniors and adult students have applied for and can receive the financial aid for which they are eligible. Knowing what funding you have available for postsecondary education is an important milestone in making that education happen.”

Ensuring that students have this important information drove passage of the state’s FAFSA Mandate. This new law, which took effect with the 2020-2021 school year, requires public high school seniors to complete the FAFSA or, if eligible, the Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid, as a prerequisite to receiving a high school diploma. A waiver provision allows a parent, guardian, or the student–if 18 or emancipated–to opt out of the requirement.

While ISAC already provides free college planning and financial aid workshops and one-on-one assistance for students during the annual College Changes Everything® (CCE) fall campaign and throughout the year, the agency is extending its outreach and supports to help address the many obstacles for students created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to meet the state’s new FAFSA Mandate. ISAC has hosted over 750 online financial aid workshops with school partners, as well as 13 statewide virtual financial aid completion workshops since September 2020, with more scheduled in 2021. As high schools focus their efforts on remote learning and keeping connected with students, ISAC is reaching out directly to schools that previously participated in the CCE campaign and is offering the following free supports statewide:

  • Online financial aid completion workshops for students and parents. See studentportal.isac.org/events for statewide virtual events.
  • Individual assistance to students and parents in completing financial aid applications, via web conferencing, phone, text, or email. Contact your local ISACorps member for free assistance: studentportal.isac.org/isacorps. Sign up for ISAC’s free text messaging app to get college/financial aid questions answered via text: isac.org/collegeqa.
  • ISAC’s FAFSA Completion Initiative and direct outreach to students. ISAC’s FAFSA Completion Initiative offers Illinois school districts a way to identify students who have not submitted either a FAFSA or Alternative Application. The application completion information – updated on a weekly basis – can be used by district counselors to help reach students who may need assistance or encouragement to complete an application. To support busy school counselors and with school permission, ISAC can directly reach out to and assist students who have not completed a FAFSA. Find out more at https://www.isac.org/home/fafsa/index.html
  • Financial Aid Online Learning Module for classrooms. ISAC is developing an online learning module for schools to use as part of their remote learning curriculum, which includes a video and a learning packet.
  • QR code for outreach to students and families. To improve outreach to students and families during the pandemic, ISAC will be introducing a QR code that links to simple and accessible information for students and families about how to get free assistance with financial aid applications. ISAC is partnering with several schools to pilot a program that will affix stickers with this QR code to free and reduced meal boxes and printed learning materials. Students and families will be able to scan the QR code with their phones to access the information.

The state FAFSA mandate is making a difference—Illinois finished 2020 as the #1 state for FAFSA completions. Check out the links above or contact your school counselor if your senior has not yet completed their FAFSA.