Washington students are missing out on free money. Millions of dollars in federal financial aid — including up to $50 million in Pell Grants in 2018 — went unclaimed after eligible high school seniors didn’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA). Not only is that a miss for those students, but some worry that today’s low completion rates will translate into missed opportunities down the road.

Career opportunities in aerospace, life science, health care, manufacturing and e-commerce, along with jobs in information and communication technology, are all growing fast in our state, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce. Recent research from the Washington Roundtable indicates that most of the job openings coming to Washington in the years ahead will be filled by workers who have completed a post-high school credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship, or certificate. That’s why the Washington Roundtable set a goal: By the high school class of 2030, 70% of students will earn a post-high school credential by age 26. That number is estimated at 40% of students today.

“Hundreds of thousands of job openings are coming Washington. We want to make sure our kids are equipped with the credentials they need to take advantage of those opportunities,” said Brian Jeffries, policy director for Partnership for Learning, the nonprofit education foundation of the Washington Roundtable.

Before students can earn a credential, they must first understand how to apply for and enroll in postsecondary education. And they need a plan for how they will foot the bill.

Financial aid application completion empowers students

The good news: Among high school seniors, 90% of those completing the FAFSA attend college directly after graduation. That’s compared to 55% of students who didn’t complete the form but went on to attend college, according to the National College Access Network.

The bad news: Only 54% of Washington state seniors completed the FAFSA in 2017 — among the lowest completion rates in all 50 states, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council.

“Our message to Washington students — and the schools supporting them — is ‘go get that money,’” Jeffries said.

Filling out the FAFSA or WASFA (Washington Application for State Financial Aid) will help students understand what types and how much financial aid is available to them. With that information, they can make informed decisions about how to navigate the education-to-career pathway that best fits their skill set and ambitions.

“It’s about getting every student — no matter their race, gender, or ZIP code — further on a path to a rewarding career with advancement opportunities,” Jeffries added.

Jeffries notes that Washington state created the Washington College Grant earlier this year, for which about 110,000 students from low- and middle-income households will qualify. The FAFSA or the WAFSA is the first step for students in accessing this money.

Students can use the Washington College Grant awards at approximately 65 institutions, including Washington’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities and many accredited private/independent colleges, universities, and career schools in the state. Depending on family income, students attending a community or technical college could receive more than $4,000. Students attending the University of Washington or Washington State University can receive more than $10,000. Assuming students make satisfactory academic progress, as determined by the institution they attend, those funds do not have to be paid back.

Knocking down barriers to application completion

Less than a half-hour is needed to complete the FAFSA, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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So why don’t students complete the form if thousands of dollars may be waiting on the other side? According to one survey, some students think they or their family could afford school or college without financial aid. Others worry they won’t qualify or fear incurring college-related debt, says the National Center for Education Statistics, with the U.S. Department of Education.

Teens with parents holding a high school or GED degree were three times as likely to say they didn’t have enough information for FAFSA completion. And 9% of those teens didn’t know what the FAFSA was.

Many students have an “information gap” — they don’t know what they don’t know, says Elisa Aguayo Munoz, College & Career Readiness Manager for Kent School District and former Student Achievement Specialist at Kent-Meridian High School, just south of Seattle.

Elisa Aguayo Munoz is the College & Career Readiness Manager for Kent School District.
Elisa Aguayo Munoz is the College & Career Readiness Manager for Kent School District.

“As an example, she says some students don’t understand that financial aid includes grants, which don’t have to be repaid, assuming they maintain satisfactory academic progress. They also may not understand that applying for aid isn’t the same thing as accepting it. Students can turn down some or all of the grants or loans for which they qualify and compare offers from different schools. Grants and loans can be used for a variety of educational opportunities, such as trade programs, community colleges and four-year universities.

“There are structural, systemic barriers, too. “The financial aid process is long and complicated, and can be confusing,” Aguayo Munoz says. Locating tax and income documentation from family can be challenging. English-only forms can also be a barrier for new immigrant or refugee families. Other students are facing homelessness, or live with relatives, she says.

School-based solutions

High schools are stepping in to help remedy systemic issues, according to research and pilot studies from the 12th Year Campaign, a project administered by the Washington Student Achievement Council.

A Kent-Meridian High School student celebrates successful financial aid application completion at the College Success Foundation Financial Aid Night on October 2. There were 26 students and their families in attendance, and 13 students submitted their FAFSA or WASFA applications.
A Kent-Meridian High School student celebrates successful financial aid application completion at the College Success Foundation Financial Aid Night on October 2. There were 26 students and their families in attendance, and 13 students submitted their FAFSA or WASFA applications.

Districtwide strategies include adding financial aid applications to student planning sessions; tracking student aid applications; offering day and evening aid application support; and informing students that financial aid applies to most technical, two- and four-year schools.

Kent School District increased financial aid form completion rates by up to 8 percentage points from 2015 to 2018 using such strategies, according to data from the Roadmap Project. Robocalls in a student’s native language increased attendance at evening and weekend events where staff were available to help families complete financial aid forms.

The district also provided 11th and 12th graders, and their families, with grade-specific college-bound information and offered opportunities to meet representatives from more than 60 technical schools, apprenticeship programs, colleges, and universities. Translators were available to explain information in multiple languages, including English, Spanish, Somali and Vietnamese.

Students who claim they don’t want to go to college are invited into conversation with someone they trust, Aguayo Munoz added. Those students might not know of the postsecondary options available, might think they don’t have money for school, or might come from a family unfamiliar with the college experience.

Even if parents aren’t involved in the fine-grain details of form completion, “they play such a critical role in emotionally supporting students,” Aguayo Munoz says — whether making dinner or offering words of encouragement and pride.

Aguayo Munoz is herself a Kent-Meridian High School graduate and participated in the College Success Foundation Achievers program, which helps prepare students for the SAT, locate financial aid and scholarships, apply to schools, and understand a financial aid award letter. “These services are especially important for first-generation college students,” Aguayo Munoz says.

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in early childhood and family studies and is now employed in a job where “the credential is essential.”

“A big reason why I wanted to pursue this work was that I received support, and I needed to pay it back.”

The financial aid application window opened October 1. Students are encouraged to file their form early and reach out to a counselor if they need help. More financial aid resources are available at www.psccn.org or www.readysetgrad.wa.gov.

Financial aid form options

FAFSA is for U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens. The last date to file a new FAFSA application for the 2019-2020 academic year is June 30, 2020. The priority deadline for the 2020-2021 school year varies by institution, but some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, until it runs out each year.

WASFA (Washington Application for State Financial Aid) is for students who are residents of Washington state but are ineligible to receive federal financial aid and who meet certain eligibility requirements. Like the FAFSA, the priority deadline for the 2020-2021 school year varies by institution.

Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable, brings together business leaders and education partners to improve our state’s education system, so Washington students are ready to pursue the career pathways of their choice. Learn more at credentialessential.com.