New CA law encourages students to cash in on free financial aid

Berkeley, Calif. (KGO) -- As new students prepare to move into college campuses across the state, there's a new law aimed at making college tuition more affordable for California students by tapping into free money.

"I'm very glad that I actually got to go to my dream school without any loans without one less thing to worry about and to really focus on my academics," said Jasmin Luz, an incoming first-year law student at U.C. Berkeley.

Luz is the California Dream: a first generation college student, the daughter of immigrants, and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley--and she did it in just two years.

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Concurrent enrollment (taking college credits during high school) along with advanced placement credits allowed her to finish undergrad early without borrowing any money.

"I was able to come out from those two years without any loans. If I wouldn't have completed the FAFSA form, if I wouldn't have applied for it or gotten any financial aid I probably would have accumulated anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 in debt," she said.

Now, a new law signed by governor Newsom will ensure all graduating high school seniors take advantage of free state and federal financial aid starting in the 2022-2023 academic year.

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AB 132 will require school districts to confirm seniors have completed the FAFSA or California Dream Act application before graduating, or opt out of the process.

Alabama and Colorado join California in recently passing measures to make completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) a high school graduation requirement.

"This is really helping low income students, students of color, first generation students, immigrant students, students in rural areas really see colleges as something realistic,

Said Manny Rodriguez, associate director of policy and government relations, Education Trust-West.

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The education policy advocacy group Ed Trust-West estimates $550 million dollars in free state and federal aid went unclaimed by California students in 2018 and 2019.

Statewide, data from the California Student Aid Commission show just half of graduating seniors completed financial aid forms in 2020.

In the Bay Area, the number vay by school district.

With as many as 64% of graduating seniors in San Francisco Unified completing the forms, 59% in Oakland Unified and San Jose Unified school districts, 54% in Fremont Unified, 53% in San Mateo Union High School District, and 50% in Pittsburg Unified.

In Antioch Unified, as few as 36% of graduating seniors completed financial aid forms in 2020.

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The forms can be complicated and require students to ask parents or caretakers touchy questions about income.

"Of those students who don't complete an application, they're more likely to be students of color, particularly Black and Latinx students, and low income students," said Tyler Wu, uAspire California policy director.

uAspire is a college access organization that advises 10,000 students each year on applying for and receiving financial aid.

Failing to complete the forms leaves many students thinking they can't afford higher education so they don't apply.

This law is aimed at changing that.

Luz is glad she completed the forms and is excited for what's to come.

"After law school, I'm hoping to probably go into immigration law or something in public policy," said Luz. "My dad's very proud of me. As for my mom, she passed away a few years ago, but I'm still hoping that she's looking down and feeling very proud."

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