FAFSA No. 1 Priority in Accessing College
Like so many first-generation college students, my senior year of high school felt like entering a funhouse of mirrors. Everywhere I turned, a new mirror popped up, distorting my view of how to access this strange new world of higher education.
Thanks to my guidance counselor, I quickly learned about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It was my ticket to the future.
When I applied for FAFSA, it was worse than doing your taxes, and you had to do it at the same time as your taxes, which made for a nightmarish new year. It took my family more than a month to fill out the form, including entire weekends spent bent over the kitchen table, poring over the rules.
Today, the FAFSA can be completed as early as Oct. 1, using pre-populated income and tax information from an earlier tax year. The entire application takes an average of 24 minutes to complete, from start to finish.
Many more changes over the years have combined to make filling out the FAFSA the No. 1 most important thing students can do to access college.
The FAFSA is deceptively simple. Through a single application, every American student can access a broad range of federal loans, grants or work-study programs, including Pell Grants for undergraduate students from low-income families. Many colleges also require the FAFSA to be on file for need-based or merit-based aid packages, which can combine to make college accessible and affordable to even the poorest of kids like I was.
If it’s so important, why do so few students in our community complete the FAFSA?
According to our Achieve Escambia partners, only 30 percent of Escambia County students completed the FAFSA last school year, compared to 34 percent statewide.
Digging a little deeper, we see tremendous variation in FAFSA completion rates among Escambia County 12th-graders, from a low of 22 percent at Northview High School to a high of nearly 48 percent at West Florida High School during the 2016-17 school year.
Translated into dollars, what these numbers mean is that Florida's high school class of 2017 left as much as $151 million in free federal grant money for college on the table, with millions unclaimed right here in our region, according to a new analysis of Florida College Access Network data by NerdWallet.
We don’t know all the reasons preventing students from filling out the FAFSA. But we’re determined to find out because it’s such a strong indicator of college attendance.
In fact, coming together around this issue was a top takeaway among community partners during the Achieve Escambia Career Readiness Collective Action Network kickoff event on November 9.
Over the next few months, our network will learn how to align resources and support students to complete the FAFSA with a focus on communicating best practices, understanding barriers and inspiring a shared commitment to improve.
In just a few years, economists predict 65 percent of Florida jobs will require a postsecondary degree or credential.
As a community, we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. But our students need access and financial resources before they can earn a degree or certificate.
That’s where the FAFSA comes in. It’s not another funhouse mirror. It’s the single most important thing you can do for your future.
Kimberly Krupa is director of Achieve Escambia, a cradle to career movement working to ensure the success of every child, student and adult.