Resolve to Help Students Complete Their FAFSA

Guest Correspondence

Image courtesy Pixabay

Every year, high school students across Sarasota County leave money on the table—thousands and thousands of dollars. The federal grants and scholarships they could receive by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) could be the difference between graduating with little to no student debt, or with a mountain of it. For some, it could determine if they can even attend college or technical school in the first place. 

In December 2020, the U.S. government passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which instituted changes that are taking effect this year. It will now be much easier to complete this important application, with far fewer questions—and with increased eligibility for federal student aid.

Completing the FAFSA is a strong indicator of students’ likelihood of pursuing education after high school, yet last year only 55.4% of students in Sarasota County completed their FAFSA, down from 56.2% the previous year. So many students missed out on free money to offset the costs of college or specialized training. 

Thomas Williams, director of PLANit Sarasota, our local college access network in Sarasota, estimates if the county returned to a 56.2% completion rate, students here would receive $3.4 million in Pell Grant awards. With an increase to a 60% completion rate, the county would see an estimated incremental increase of $300,000.

In Sarasota County, according to the Florida College Access Network, 45.6% of residents aged 25-64 hold an associate degree or higher. Yet FCAN also finds that 60% of Florida jobs will require a degree or credential by 2030. A thriving local economy depends on an educated, agile, and ready workforce. And completing the FAFSA opens pathways to that degree or credential. 

Traditionally, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1, but this year, with these changes, the application opened on Dec. 31. While this date could get lost in the holiday season, it’s important that students and families complete and submit the application as early as possible because grants and scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Through the collective effort of many community and education partners, the FAFSA rate in Sarasota County has avoided the significant dips other places experienced during the pandemic. However, the completion rate has also remained stubborn, hovering around the mid-50s. States like Tennessee and Louisiana, with universal FAFSA completion, record a completion rate in the higher 60s.

In January, PLANit Sarasota, in partnership with the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, Sarasota County high schools, State College of Florida and other partners, will host FAFSA open houses at area high schools. At these free events, students and families can work one on one with a FAFSA expert to complete their applications. 

More open houses will follow, and there will be free online resources available to help. But these resources are only effective if students and families take advantage of them.

That’s where we all come in. Improving the FAFSA rate requires a coordinated effort by multiple stakeholders. As we’ve seen countless times over these past few years, when a community comes together to solve problems, we accomplish great things.  

With the new year upon us, let’s work together to increase awareness of the FAFSA and to connect students and families to resources that will help them complete it. Teachers, counselors, administrators, friends, neighbors, colleagues, classmates—together we can spread the word about the FAFSA and actively help students complete it. 

When students and families complete the FAFSA, pathways open, and with each new pathway, students move closer to reaching their full potential and leading successful lives. I can think of few outcomes more worthy of our time and effort than that.

To find a FAFSA open house at your child’s school, visit: edfoundationsrq.org/events/

To learn more about the FAFSA and the resources available, visit: edfoundationsrq.org/students/financial-aid/fafsa/

Jennifer Vigne is President and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

Image courtesy Pixabay

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