In early December, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the “Governor’s FAFSA Challenge” for high schools across the state to increase their Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion rate among graduating seniors. 

The challenge is supported by the College Cash Campaign initiative under Michigan College Access Network, which will provide the necessary resources, such as an implementation guide and toolbox of tips, to help participating high schools boost their FAFSA completion rate. 

MCAN is aiming for a 75 percent FAFSA completion rate in 2020, a significant jump from the 55.9 percent completion rate in 2019. 

“Every student deserves a path to a quality, affordable postsecondary education, and filling out FAFSA forms can make an enormous difference for families across the state,” Whitmer said in a press release announcing the challenge. “I just finished helping my daughter fill out her FAFSA application while she applied to colleges. It’s simple and can help students everywhere get on a path to a quality postsecondary education.”

Completing the FAFSA online form is the only way to secure Pell Grants and other federal financial aid, as well as most state and institutional financial aid. Last year, it is estimated that about 25,000 Michigan students who were eligible for the Pell Grant, a federal subsidy for college distributed to students based on need, did not file the FAFSA. That means nearly $100 million in Pell Grant funding went unused in the state of Michigan alone. 

MCAN will work with the estimated 500 participating high schools November through March on completing the FAFSA and scholarship applications. High schools will be able to track their FAFSA completion rate through the FAFSA tracker, which shows the individual school’s completion data and trends over time. 

The “Governor’s FAFSA Challenge” includes incentives and awards for high schools that reach certain levels of FAFSA completion. The three winning high schools will have the opportunity to have Whitmer, Lieutenant Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II or another prominent Michigan celebrity to serve as their commencement, or decision day, speaker. The top 10 geographic winners will win a trip to the Capitol and meet Whitmer. 

FAFSA completion rates are lower in low-income districts than in high-income districts, according to College Cash Campaign. Low-income high school seniors are 127 percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education after high school if they complete the FAFSA than if they do not complete it. 

In a statement to The Michigan Daily, Vickie Crupper, senior associate director of the Office of Financial Aid at the University of Michigan, said the University’s FAFSA completion rates are already extremely high among incoming students. 

“Anything done to increase access to higher education, especially for those from low-income backgrounds, is a positive step, and we applaud the governor’s initiative,” Crupper said. “At U-M we’re lucky to have extremely high FAFSA completion rates among our students and families with need.”

Rackham student Laura Rall is president of Affordable Michigan, a student organization that works to alleviate some of the financial barriers to college life, including housing, health, food security and worker’s rights. 

Rall is from a small rural town in Van Buren County, Michigan, and believes the “Governor’s FAFSA Challenge” is a great initiative for encouraging high school students to complete the FAFSA. She recalled from her own experience that her high school left students to navigate the FAFSA completion process by themselves. 

“Because there was no FAFSA day at school or anything, if U-M hadn’t asked me to fill it out, I would never have thought to,” Rall said.

Rall said that living in a rural area presents other challenges to applying to college and completing the FAFSA, including internet access and parent availability. 

“Especially coming from my lens of a small community and an under-resourced community … Wi-Fi isn’t a widespread thing, just because it’s hard to get Wi-Fi in the country, just access to a computer to be able to fill out that information,” Rall said. “And then FAFSA is also relying on a parent being around and being able to answer the questions for you, which is hard with working schedules.” 

Given its high FAFSA completion rates, Rall said the University could increase accessibility by recruiting from high schools in lower-income and rural areas. 

“I know it would be hard for U-M to go to all of the different schools,” Rall said. “Even just in Michigan there’s so many, and a lot are spread apart. But I think it means a lot, especially when you’re a high school or teenage student to have someone tell you face to face that this is a possibility for you.”

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