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Graduation Requirement: Milwaukee Public Schools Mandate Students Apply for College Financial Aid

Milwaukee Public Schools are now requiring students to apply for college financial aid before they can graduate from high school, but critics say the city’s schools should worry about basic reading and writing before leaders worry about college.

MPS made Free Application for Federal Student Aid applications mandatory this month, and Milwaukee leaders celebrated the policy with news conferences this week.

“I want every single young person in Milwaukee to be ambitious, to have big dreams,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said. “I want them to take the steps that can lead to success. And filling out the FAFSA is an important part of that.”

MPS says about 50% of Milwaukee students applied for federal financial aid last year. Only about a third of 2020 graduates enrolled in college.

Heather Smith, a policy director at the MacIver Institute told The Center Square that MPS’ numbers are worse than that.

“[Newly released] numbers show that in MPS, 84% of students are failing in math and 81% are failing in English,” Smith explained. “The four-year graduation rate for MPS is just under 64%.”

MPS’ college access coordinator said the requirement is that students either complete the application, not enroll in college or attend a university. She said the new mandate should not be a barrier for kids to graduate on time.

Milwaukee County executive David Crowley said there are other numbers that are important to this discussion as well.

“At least 80% of students that fill out the FAFSA receive some type of financial aid when it comes down to attending school,” he said. “So to not apply is to literally leave money on the table.”

Smith said it would be better for MPS students if the city’s schools paid as much attention to learning during high school as they now are paying to financial aid after graduation.

“It probably should come as no surprise that MPS wants to require students – the vast majority of whom cannot read or do math at their grade level – to complete what’s widely recognized as one of the most complex and confusing higher education forms, in an effort to to push them into spending money on an education for which the district has woefully failed to academically prepare them,” Smith said. “MPS should focus on requiring that their graduates are able to actually read college applications and do the math required for financial aid forms before they consider making the FAFSA a requirement.”


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