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Requirement, dashboard increasing student aid applications

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Fifty-two percent of Alabama high school seniors have completed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a new requirement for graduation this year.

That’s an increase from 50% in all of 2021 and a number that will likely increase as students and schools get nudges from state education leaders, thanks in part to a new software system that can track applications by school and student and flag incomplete or incorrect information.

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education’s contract with technology company Oracle includes a dashboard where the public can track FAFSA rates by school.

The dashboard allows ACHE or the Alabama State Department of Education to contact local schools with low application rates to see if they’re having particular challenges or need additional help getting students to fill out FAFSA, ACHE Executive Director Jim Purcell said. He described the effort as a combination of technology and boots-on-the-ground career coaches.

The Alabama State Board of Education in 2021 required graduating high school students to complete the FAFSA. At the time, policymakers said Alabama students were leaving more than $60 million per year in free aid on the table.

“Completing the FAFSA is the first step to ensuring that all Alabama students have the opportunity to afford education after high school,” said state board member Cynthia McCarty, whose northeast Alabama district includes Calhoun and Morgan counties. “Finances often inhibit young people from pursuing community and four-year college credentials and degrees which  will offer them greater opportunities to earn the incomes needed to adequately provide for themselves and their families. The FAFSA allows students to qualify for federal student grants and loans as well as many college scholarships.”

The FAFSA is used as a base for many scholarships and other aid, so filling it out opens more possibilities to students, Purcell said. 

Missed applications aren’t just about lost money, he said.

“It’s really a loss of human capital for the state,” Purcell said. “It’s a reduction in human potential for the individuals and their families.

“…It’s about helping people with the American Dream when they need the help the most.” 

Gov. Kay Ivey has set a goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to the workforce by 2025, which if accomplished would bring the level of work-age Alabamians with post high school training or degrees from about 43% in 2016 to 60%.

Two-thirds of new jobs in the state require a bachelor’s degree or higher, Purcell said. 

“(The FAFSA effort is) really based around the fact that our economy is requiring more and more credentialed individuals,” Purcell said. “So we know that if we can get them into some post secondary education, they’ll have more of a possibility to be gainfully employed in Alabama’s future economy.”

Purcell said that while Oracle is providing the technology for the dashboard, all student information is staying within K-12 and ACHE.

“I can assure (people) that there is not a big organization that’s connecting those pieces,” he said.

There’s a waiver for parents to opt out of the application and Purcell said he knows 100% completion won’t happen. He anticipates more waivers from high-income systems where families don’t qualify for aid.

The FAFSA monitoring effort cost about $1.1 million to start. The commission used some federal COVID-19 relief money because the state saw a dip in college applications.

“The ability to get people to fill out a FAFSA declined greatly (during the pandemic),” Purcell said.

Lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey put a $500,000 earmark in next year’s education budget for the FAFSA effort.

Purcell acknowledges ACHE is trying to inspire some friendly competition among schools to see who can get the biggest participation rates. The dashboard allows for listing systems by percentage completed.

The National College Attainment Network tracks FAFSA by state and says Alabama has a 23% increase in applications year over year. Only Texas has a larger increase. 

Tennessee has the highest application rate at 64.4%. The state’s lottery funded scholarship program requires a FAFSA.

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