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A Game-Changer: FAFSA is Surest Pathway to College Access

By Christi Taylor

Every year, Michigan students leave hundreds of millions of dollars of financial aid on the table. The Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees (D3) is committed to changing that.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the only way to unlock federal and state financial aid, many scholarships and sources of community-based financial aid, and the Pell Grant, which provides need-based money for college that does not have to be paid back. Completing a FAFSA is the surest pathway to college access, with 90% of seniors who complete the FAFSA immediately enrolling into postsecondary programs, versus 50% who don’t complete the FAFSA.

Yet many of Michigan’s students do not complete the FAFSA. In the Detroit Region, 58% of Class of 2020 seniors filed a FAFSA. The 42% of students who didn’t file represent nearly 20,000 students, many of whom would have been eligible for federal and state aid and grants. The National College Attainment Network found that seniors in higher-poverty districts were less likely to complete the FAFSA than those in higher-income districts.

“Across the country, students who would benefit most from the FAFSA are the least likely to complete it,” said Greg Handel, the Chamber’s vice president of education and talent. “Our Detroit Drives Degrees program is working to increase FAFSA completion across the region and reduce equity gaps, ensuring more low-income students and students of color are completing the form.”

In 2018 through D3, the Chamber launched Race to the FAFSA Line, a regional competition between high schools in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. Participating schools can win cash prizes and other incentives for a strong FAFSA showing. In addition, schools are provided with resources through webinars and trainings, a newsletter, and learning communities to share ideas and best practices. This year, over 100 schools are participating in the campaign.

D3 also admits a small group of schools into its “Sprint to the Finish” cohort. These schools, who traditionally have lower FAFSA completion rates than peer districts, receive targeted support and access to a FAFSA coach, a college advising expert who works with counselors to identify students who have not yet filed their FAFSA and meet with those students one-on-one to help them complete the form.

Since 2018, Race to the FAFSA Line has grown to include strong partnerships with the Michigan College Access Network, Detroit College Access Network, and the Governor’s Office, resulting in a true statewide collaborative effort to create more opportunities for all of Michigan’s students.

“The FAFSA is a game-changer,” said the Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees Director Melanie D’Evelyn. “We will continue to work with school districts and counselors to ensure every student has a chance to apply for the financial aid that they need to attend college.”

Christi Taylor is the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Director of Programs and Employer Partnerships for Detroit Drives Degrees.