Students challenged to fill out FAFSA

Students and parents fill out FAFSAs at a filing party held at Clewiston High School.

Students and parents fill out FAFSAs at a filing party held at Clewiston High School.

As the end of the school year approaches and seniors are considering their options after graduation, one important step to take towards life after high school is being neglected by the majority of seniors in Hendry County: filling out a FAFSA.

Short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA is one of the most important applications graduating seniors can complete for their post-secondary life. Whether a student is planning on or merely considering going to a college, university or trade school after graduation, the FAFSA is an important step towards making those student’s dreams a reality.

The FAFSA indicates how much a student is eligible to receive from an enormous pool of federal financial aid, making post-secondary education more affordable.

Considering its importance, the FAFSA completion rate for Hendry County’s seniors is dismal. Of the 168 seniors in the Clewiston High School Class of 2014, only 32.1 percent had completed a FAFSA by June 30, 2014. Of the 244 seniors in LaBelle High School, 44.3 percent had filled out the FAFSA by June 30 of the same year.

This year, 70 out of 234 seniors at Clewiston High had completed the FAFSA as of April 24, compared to 83 of 256 seniors at LaBelle.

Statewide, it is estimated that high school graduates are missing out on millions of dollars worth of financial aid by not filling out a FAFSA. The graduating class of 2013 reportedly missed out on an estimated $100 million worth of need-based Pell Grants, according to Florida College Access Network. Unlike some federal financial aid programs, students are not required to pay back Pell Grants and can receive up to $5,645 per year.

To help Hendry County’s students tap into the vast pool of federal and state financial aid, the Hendry County Education Improvement Task Force hosted a FAFSA filing party at the Clewiston High School library on Monday, May 11. Financial aid experts were on hand to help students and parents fill out their forms.

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, an active member of the Education Task Force, said the group hoped the event would help increase the number of seniors filling out the form.

“We want to move the percent of the graduating Class of 2015 to the stated goal of being 10 percent higher than last year. But more importantly, we hope to engage mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, guardian, so they understand this process and know it is integral for a graduating senior to take the next step and make themselves more appealing to the work force and college,” said Turner.

As part of the Task Force’s mission to improve Hendry County as a whole by improving its education system, increasing the number of students filling out the FAFSA would likely increase the number of students attending college or trade school after graduation.

One notable study called the “Potholes Study,” published by the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago, showed the correlation between completing FAFSAs and college attendance by high school graduates. The study found that Chicago Public School students who were admitted into a four-year college and filled out a FAFSA were much more likely to attend college the following fall than students who were admitted but did not fill out a FAFSA — 89 percent compared to 65 percent, respectively.

The Task Force hopes that by increasing FAFSA completion rates, the number of Hendry County graduates attending college will also increase.

Clewiston High School Principal George Duckstein echoed Turner’s sentiment on the importance of filling out a FAFSA.

“For students going to college, [filling out the FAFSA] is the most important thing. It’s the first step,” said Duckstein. “It’s the first step to take. The student can decide afterwards if he wants to go to college.”

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