Escambia County students leave $2M on table in potential grants
By Holly Busse
Chair, Escambia County FAFSA Challenge
Counselor on special assignment at Escambia County Public Schools
Note: This article originally appeared in the Pensacola News-Journal
If you’ve spoken with a college student, or the parent of a college student, you’ve probably heard them discuss how much the cost of higher education is impacting their family’s budget.
According to College Board, the nonprofit organization that provides the SAT exam, the average cost to attend a public university in the United States went up by over 3% last year.
In Florida, the average student loan debt for a graduate is more than $24,000, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
Here’s the kicker: college doesn’t have to make such a big impact on your wallet or your credit.
Last year, students in Escambia County left more than $2 million in Pell grants unused, all because students did not complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
That’s right, two million dollars available but unused by Escambia County students.
Last year, only 44% of seniors in Escambia County high schools completed a FAFSA application. And that’s down by more than 1% from the previous year.
That’s why Achieve Escambia is launching the Escambia County FAFSA Challenge. The goal is simple — to challenge local students and their parents to fill out a FAFSA application.
The Escambia County FAFSA Challenge kicks off on Oct. 1 and will continue through March 31. Achieve Escambia will track the weekly progress for this challenge and provide regular updates to help foster a sense of competition among students and between schools.
We’re challenging Escambia’s seven public high schools to see which campus can show the most improvement in FAFSA application completions. The school who improves the most will receive a $500 student scholarship.
But wait, there’s more! The most improved school won’t be the only winner. Students who successfully complete their FAFSA application will be eligible for a wide variety of prizes, including memberships to the YMCA and discounts to graduation-themed activities.
This effort is another example of the community-wide, collective effort that is underway to help improve outcomes from kindergarten readiness to college and career readiness. If you’re the parent of a high school senior, or friends with one, please challenge them to fill out the FAFSA application. If you employ or mentor a high school student, consider FAFSA another tool in your toolbox to help them access a postsecondary degree or certificate.
Honestly, there’s no excuse for any of our high school seniors to not participate in the FAFSA Challenge. If you need help with completing the FAFSA, it’s just a phone call away at 1-800-433-3243. You can even chat with someone while on the FAFSA.ED.GOV website!
The rewards can be very impactful. Completing the FAFSA opens the door for students to access a broad range of grants, work-study programs or federal loans, including the Pell Grant for undergraduate students from low-income families. Many colleges also require the FAFSA to be on file for merit-based or need-based aid packages, which can combine with other scholarships or grants to make college accessible and affordable.
Whether our students are interested in attending a technical college, two-year college or a four-year university, completing the FAFSA is the most important first step in making sure they’re better able to afford this investment in their future.
So, in my best announcer voice, “Let’s get ready to apply!!!!!” High school seniors, you can do this! Last year, Pensacola High School held the top spot in terms of FAFSA applications in Escambia County. West Florida was second and Northview came in third. Who will claim these top spots this year?