BOSTON (SHNS) – A Haverhill lawmaker’s bill would require that Massachusetts students complete a federal application for financial aid before graduating from high school, taking aim at a situation that has vexed education officials during the pandemic.

Rep. Andy Vargas, who modeled his legislation after a similar policy in Louisiana, said COVID-19 has exacerbated the gap between low-income and high-income school districts in completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Vargas filed the bill (HD 2616) with Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus Chair Rep. Chynah Tyler. Nine other Democrats have signed on as cosponsors.

“FAFSA played a critical role for me in going to college. We need to make sure our students aren’t leaving higher ed funding on the table and deferring their college dreams,” Vargas said. “Within one year, the state of Louisiana was able to close the FAFSA completion gap between high-and-low-income school districts by 87 percent. Within two years, the gap was completely closed. This bill accomplishes the same, while providing waivers to students in difficult circumstances.”

FAFSA completion rates are viewed as a key indicator of interest in attending college. In January, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said 90 percent of students who fill out the FAFSA by March 15 end up enrolling in college, compared to 70 percent for those who wait until after March 15 and 30 percent for those who do not complete it.

Data presented to higher education officials in December showed that FAFSA completion rates through Thanksgiving were down nationally amid pandemic disruptions to education and family finances, and the drop was more pronounced at Massachusetts high schools serving the largest populations of minority and low-income students.