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Opinion | Michigan high schools should require college financial aid literacy

As a first-generation college graduate, I wasn’t always sure that college was going to be an option my family could afford. My dad is an auto worker and my mom is a cafeteria aide at a local high school. My parents wanted the best for me, but we didn’t know how we would be able to make it happen. So, I applied to several colleges with the hope that we would be able to figure it out if I got accepted.

The day I received my acceptance letter from Kalamazoo College was unforgettable, but that’s not the day I knew I would be able to attend college. I was accepted in December, but the tuition costs were steep, and my family couldn’t afford the $45,000 price tag without a lot of help. Like so many others, I began to look for options to help me overcome this seemingly insurmountable barrier and eventually learned about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

Through FAFSA, the federal government offers more than $120 billion in grants and scholarships annually for a wide range of postsecondary options, including trade schools, two-year colleges, and four-year colleges and universities. Despite this availability of funds, around $24 billion of those federal higher education funding dollars go unclaimed each year. So far in 2019, only 53 percent of Michigan’s graduating seniors have completed a FAFSA application, according to Education Trust-Midwest. Michigan families are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table each year by not applying to FAFSA.

Because my parents didn’t have experience with this system, I had to navigate FAFSA by myself. The more I read about FAFSA, the more I realized how important it was to help me get the grants and loans I needed. Fortunately, after tracking down my family’s financial information and getting some help from my high school counselor, I successfully submitted my application. In the spring, when I got my full financial aid package from Kalamazoo College, I was able to cover 85 percent of the total costs with grants and scholarships. And the rest came out of a federal loan and money my family and I saved up. Because of FAFSA, what was once a dream became an affordable reality.

FAFSA is the single most important key to unlocking financial aid for all students, but it’s especially crucial for low-income students. Students who come from a lower income background are 127 percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education the fall after their graduation if they complete a FAFSA compared to their counterparts who do not, according to Education Trust-Midwest.

While FAFSA unlocks aid for universities and community colleges, it also gives students who want to attend trade schools access to financial aid – so nearly every student can benefit no matter what their postsecondary plans are. With so many benefits to completing FAFSA, our state Legislature needs to do more to ensure future students know how to access and successfully use this valuable resource.

I recently introduced legislation to do just that. House Bill 4614 would make FAFSA completion a graduation requirement for students across Michigan unless they choose to opt out.  

There may be many reasons why a student cannot or doesn’t want to fill out this form — including immigration status — which is why we want to have a clear waiver available. This bill would bring Michigan’s lagging 50 percent FAFSA completion rate up to par with the nation’s leaders – Tennessee (77 percent) and Louisiana (76 percent), the first two states to implement similar requirements. In the first two years this legislation was implemented in Tennessee, the number of Pell grant recipients there increased by almost 33 percent.

We know that college isn’t for everyone. However, by increasing our FAFSA completion, we can help reach our state’s goal of 60 percent postsecondary attainment by 2030 by giving students the options and resources necessary to access affordable education and training.

By enacting this sensible policy, we can minimize the money students are leaving on the table each year and ensure access to a wide range of opportunities after high school – including trade schools, community colleges, and four-year universities. FAFSA opened up opportunities for me, and with this bill, I hope that more students will be able to achieve their dreams regardless of the costs of higher education or skilled trades training.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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