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Louisiana’s FAFSA U-Turn Signals That “College-for-All” Has Peaked


March 11, 2024

Fifteen years ago, AEI’s ever-prescient Charles Murray argued in Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality that too many students were going to college—that “college-for-all” loomed too large in K-12 schooling, distorted our priorities, and had fueled the neglect of career and technical education.

That take was noxious to education advocates, philanthropists, policymakers, and the higher education community. For years, I was routinely upbraided by influentials insisting that I renounce Charles’ “outlandish” suggestion (as if it was wacky to think we’d benefit if more Americans graduated K-12 with useful skills and fewer used borrowed funds to seek dubious credentials).

My response was inevitably twofold: First, AEI doesn’t have a party line, this was Charles’ argument, and they should take it up with him. Second, were they kidding me? With ballooning costs, declining rigor, relaxed workloads, campus groupthink, and high rates of noncompletion, did they really want more students going to college?

Well, yeah, they really did. College-for-all was the party line.

And that bled over into increasingly aggressive policy initiatives. One such was Louisiana’s “pioneering” move to require that students apply for college financial aid in order to graduate from high school. Students who didn’t want to fill out the intrusive, time-intensive Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) were required to obtain a waiver.

Today, at least a dozen other states have adopted the policy, one that’s become especially challenging after the debacle the Biden Department of Education has triggered this year with its botched effort to simplify the FAFSA.

That made noteworthy last week’s decision by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to end the state’s mandatory FAFSA policy. The board adopted the recommendation of state superintendent Cade Brumley, a veteran teacher and K-12 leader, who’s long argued that the mandatory FAFSA requirement burdens students and parents, forces high school counselors to focus on compliance rather than counseling, and compels families to share sensitive data. 

Given concerns about burdensome student loans, high rates of college noncompletion, and the value of a college degree, state officials asked whether the state should be putting a heavy thumb on the scale for college-going. As board member Stacey Melerine asked, “Is college always the best option, or should we steer [students] toward something that can help them earn a living-wage job and be debt free?”

Melerine said the goal is to level the playing field between college and other post-secondary paths: “We are increasing the priority of asking, ‘What are some alternative paths available that would provide meaningful opportunities to students?’”

The move occasioned predictable teeth-gnashing among the college set. Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, said, “We know students who apply for FAFSA are more likely to attend college” and “to be work-ready today, you must have this education and training.” Those tasked with keeping college coffers filled continue to take it as a given that college attendance is a good thing and that colleges are a fount of knowledge and useful skills.

For many observers, those assumptions seem increasingly suspect. As if so often the case, Charles Murray may have nailed it—just a decade or two early.