The U.S. Department of Education on Sunday released the 2018-2019 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), affording high school students in Louisiana and nationwide the chance to receive financial assistance to pursue college or post-secondary training after graduation.

This is the second year the federal government has opened the application window in October, rather than in January, to allow students more time to complete the form.   The release of the application--which is for all forms of federal financial aid, including Pell grants, work study programs, and federal student loans--comes at the same time the Louisiana Department of Education's Financial Aid Working Group has published a report detailing the most recent FAFSA submission rates, the state of post-secondary access for graduates and ways to improve financial planning for students pursuing education and training opportunities after high school.   The report, titled "The State of Financial Aid in Louisiana," is now available. Among the key takeaways: In 2017, Louisiana's FAFSA submission rate reached record highs. This year, 65 percent of Louisiana students submitted the FAFSA by the July 1 priority deadline, surpassing the state's all-time high and the national average, and ranking us among the top 15 states for growth nationwide. As of September 2017, that submission rate had jumped to 75 percent. More than ever before, it is important to apply for financial aid to further post-secondary education. By 2018, 51 percent of Louisiana's jobs will require post-secondary education, and by 2020, 65 percent of the nation's jobs will require post-secondary education. One of the most prominent barriers to post-secondary education or training in Louisiana is cost. Too few students and families have the money to fund a four-year degree or industry training program without financial assistance, and the average cost of attendance in Louisiana continues to climb. In 2017, the average cost of attendance for all Louisiana institutions-both two-year and four-year-was $6,200 for tuition and fees, $1,398 for books and supplies, and $12,738 for living expenses. Too few students, especially those who have the greatest need, take advantage of state and federal financial aid. Though Louisiana has seen continued improvement, the state has historically ranked in the bottom half of the nation for its rate of FAFSA submission. By not completing the FAFSA, Louisiana students forego millions of dollars each year in federal grants, state opportunities and other post-secondary funding. This year, for example, it is estimated the 25 percent of students who did not submit the FAFSA, to date, may be missing out on more than $150 million in aid. Additionally, students who are awarded the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarship or other state scholarships still seek assistance with living expenses, textbooks and academic fees. "These student financial aid gaps call for a comprehensive and sustainable approach to financial aid planning that benefits all students equitably and preserves the attainment of post-secondary education for future generations," said State Superintendent John White. "In recent years, Louisiana has successfully worked to improve statewide policy, financial aid planning and FAFSA submission rates, but this is just the start."   In December of 2015, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) approved a policy regarding postsecondary planning for graduating public high school seniors. The policy sought to increase student access to state and federal financial aid by requiring graduating seniors to either complete the TOPS application or the FAFSA, declare a hardship, or submit a waiver to the local school system. The policy was made effective this school year and will apply to the Class of 2018.   Furthermore, the Department convened the Louisiana Financial Aid Working Group, a group of 50 representatives from various state education and workforce entities convened by the Department to identify means of supporting students in need of financial aid for universities, colleges and workforce training programs. And it has continued to support professional school counselors in their mission to advise all students--not just university-bound ones--to apply for federal aid.   "As school counselors, it is our job to help students seamlessly transition from student to graduate, and equip them with the information and tools needed to lead a successful life after high school," said Louisiana School Counselor Association President Royce Hooks. "The availability and value of financial aid is among the most important conversations we have with students. Whether it is through a grant, a work-study, or a student loan, federal financial aid opens doors for eligible students and provides them a chance to attend a school of their choice."   This year, the Department will provide an updated tool kit to school counselors, including materials to host FAFSA-related events for families on their campuses and information about new resources, such as the Frank FAFSA mobile application, to help students and families complete the process.   Partner agencies and organizations, such as Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA), Louisiana Education Loan Authority, and Career Compass have provided additional guidance.   "We cannot say enough about the power of combined efforts toward a common goal," said LOSFA Executive Director Dr. Sujuan Boutté. "The gains Louisiana has enjoyed are the result of hard work on the part of Louisiana students and families, and a talented team of college access and outreach professionals here at LOSFA, at partner entities and at the school systems. Our collaboration has reinforced the value of options for obtaining post-secondary education."   The Catahoula Parish School System currently leads the state in FAFSA submissions, with 84 percent of high school seniors there submitting the form by the priority deadline.   "The Catahoula Parish School System has made financial aid planning a clear priority for all students, not just those who are university bound," said Catahoula Parish School System Superintendent Dr. Gwile Paul Freeman. "Many students and families don't realize they can achieve a better future by completing a simple form. Not only are we explaining that fact to them, but we are making available information and resources to assist them. The response has been affirming and inspiring."