New Jersey legislators are considering a bill that would make completing financial aid forms for higher education a requirement for high school graduation.

The bill, S2054, would require all high school students to complete financial aid forms in order to graduate, or get a waiver exempting them from the requirement. The exemption could be submitted by a parent or guardian, a school counselor, or the student if 18 or older.

The New Jersey Senate Education Committee approved the bill Monday. Next, the bill will head to the state Legislature for a vote.

R. David Rousseau, vice president of Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey, told the Senate Committee that the bill is similar to laws in 12 other states that help provide lower and middle income students with access to college aid.

“This bill is not directed at the kids that are in college and going to college,” Rousseau said. “This bill is directed at the group of kids that don’t even think about college as an option. College is an option for every New Jersey student, if they want it.”

Sen. Shirley K. Turner, of Hunterdon and Mercer counties, who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Robert Singer of Monmouth and Ocean counties, said the legislation would help connect disadvantaged and lower income students with grants. The result would spare some students and their families from the burden of student loans.

“If they are required to fill out the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), they can then realize that college can be an option for them,” Turner said during the committee hearing. “I’ve seen too many parents and even grandparents call my office complaining that they signed (loan agreements) for this student, their grandchild or their son or daughter to go to college, and now they are on the hook to pay for that, (the) student loans.”

Morganne Dudzinski, associate director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, told the Senate committee that New Jersey’s high school class of 2023 failed to claim $92 million in federal Pell grants, or needs-based grants, after graduation. She noted that Newark’s school board already made filling out the FAFSA a requirement of graduation.

“This is a three-year pilot program, has an opt-out provision and it’s not punitive in nature,” Dudzinski said. “Our colleges and universities stand ready to collaborate with our high schools in implementing this bill.”

Yet opponents of the potential legislation said that nearly 40% of high school graduates do not go on to higher education and that requiring them to fill out financial aid forms burdens them and their families. The measure would create a new obstacle to graduation and would risk exposing undocumented families, they said. Students who are heading onto apprenticeships, trades and military careers woul be wasting their families’ time, they argued.

“This does create a new graduation requirement… that has no academic bearing or purpose,” Manville School District Superintendent Jamil Maroun told the Senate Education Committee. “It does not tie to any of the academic requirements that a student has to do.”

The bill could penalize students if parents are not involved or refuse to provide financial information for the forms, Maroun said. It could also force families to disclose their immigration status and bring stress to undocumented parents or students, he said.

“We, as school districts, are constantly trying to encourage our students to complete the FAFSA forms, but… tying it to a graduation requirement, tying it to a diploma, does seem to have consequences that we may not be aware of or intending,” Maroun said. “There are going to be tentacles to this.”

Jonathan Pushman, director of government relations for the New Jersey School Boards Association, also raised objections to the bill.

“We believe that students who have satisfied all state and local academic requirements should receive a high school diploma,” he told the committee. “It (the FAFSA requirement) is simply not a precedent that we want to set, because if we put this as a graduation requirement, what comes next?”

He called for an “incentive-based, resource-backed approach,” such as requiring schools to share information and education on FAFSA, but not require the forms to be completed as part of graduation.

Harbani Ahuja, an attorney for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, urged lawmakers to support the bill, saying it would bring greater access to financial aid for students of color throughout New Jersey, she said.

“Requiring FAFSA completion for high school students will provide families with better information to explore how they can make college more affordable,” she said during the committee hearing.

She said by completing FAFSA, or the New Jersey Alternative Financial Aid Application for undocumented students, graduates can apply to programs like NJ STARS (for students in the top 15% of their graduation class), the Tuition Aid Grant, and the New Jersey College Promise for lower and middle-income families.

“We are doing a disservice to our state’s young people by letting these funds go unclaimed,” Ahuja said.