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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Opinion | Michigan needs more college grads. Step one: completing the FAFSA

Even as the vaccine rollout has kicked into high gear and families all over Michigan are trying their best to get back to “normal,” it’s clear we’ll be dealing with fallout from COVID-19 for years to come. Job losses and the accompanying recession have led to massive economic uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of Michigan families.

Jamie Jacobs
Jamie Jacobs is deputy director of the Michigan College Access Network. (Courtesy photo)

That uncertainty has pushed many graduating seniors straight into the job market. According to reporting by Bridge Michigan, “less than 55 percent of 2020 Michigan high school graduates enrolled in college within six months of getting diplomas,” the lowest rate since the state started collecting this data in 2009-10. That trend will continue for the class of 2021, if the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are any indication. As of March 19, the FAFSA completion rate for this year’s seniors was 44.2 percent, down from 52.2 percent at the same time last year.

Related: As COVID spread, far fewer Michigan high school grads enrolled in college

Students who skip college because they don’t think they can afford it – most  often students of color, low-income students, and/or would-be first-generation college students – undercut their own economic opportunities, continuing generational cycles of inequity. And too often, these students are making critical decisions about their future without knowing the full range of financial help available.

In Michigan, just over 50 percent of students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, but qualifying for these grants to pay for college depends on students completing the FAFSA. In 2018-19, we estimate 27,000 Michigan seniors who could have been awarded a Pell Grant did not complete the FAFSA. The average Pell Grant awarded to a student was $4,271, meaning Michigan left nearly $120 million in federal funds untapped. That’s $120 million that could have been invested in our students, Michigan’s students, to prepare them for the workforce of tomorrow.

The full Pell Grant for 2020-21 is $6,345 per eligible student. This is free money – not a loan – that doesn’t need to be paid back. The FAFSA is also required to access all other state financial aid, as well as most institutional and community-based financial aid. Among undergraduate students, the average amount of aid received from all sources was $12,300, with $8,600 coming from federal aid.

Completing the FAFSA changes the conversation around college affordability. We know that not every graduating senior will go to college, but every student deserves the chance to explore a full range of postsecondary options. Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA immediately enroll in postsecondary education programs. Low-income seniors who complete the FAFSA are 127 percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education directly after high school, compared to peers who do not complete the form.

When we look at the data, it is clear a college degree or certificate unlocks greater economic opportunities. According to MI School Data, the median annual wage for a Michigan resident with a high school degree, five years after graduation, is $24,400, compared to $40,800 for those with an associate degree and $52,300 for those with a bachelor’s degree. The State of Michigan projects 80 percent of our state’s fastest-growing, median-wage fields require at least some college. And in addition to higher lifetime earnings, people who hold college degrees are better equipped to weather economic downturns.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, following the 2008 recession, the segment of our population with at least a bachelor’s degree gained 8.4 million jobs as part of the post-recession recovery. Those with associate degrees or certificates gained 3.1 million jobs. But those with a high school diploma or less gained just 80,000 jobs, after losing 5.6 million jobs in the recession. We expect to see a similar pattern in the recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

While there is still a lot of uncertainty in our future, we need to keep looking forward and preparing our students for the post-pandemic economy. Michigan has extended the state’s priority FAFSA deadline to May 1, meaning there is still time to complete the FAFSA and access key state financial aid programs. Let’s invest in our state and in our students. Together we can build a better future for all Michiganders.

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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