The Detroit News
July 9, 2023
Nijuel Stewart has long dreamed of going to college, but as he got closer to high school graduation, he worried it might cost tens of thousands of dollars every year to get a higher education.
Stewart’s counselor encouraged him to fill out a form known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which one expert called a “magic form” that helps students unlock federal, state and institutional financial aid to help pay for college.
Stewart, who graduated in June from University Prep: Art & Design High School in Detroit, spent a few hours filling out the form and then got a letter last month that showed he was awarded just under $14,500 in financial aid, enough to cover about 80% of his costs when he lives on campus and attends Jackson College in the fall. Instead of a bill that he expected to exceed $30,000 for one year, Stewart is now planning to pay $3,500-$4,000 for tuition, housing and other costs after financial aid covers the rest — thanks to filling out the FAFSA form.
“I was excited,” said Stewart, 18. “because I have to spend less money on college.”
Stewart is among a growing number of students who are seeking funding for college by filling out the FAFSA form this past academic year. While Michigan students have struggled to fill out the form in recent years, participation rates are increasing, especially among students in Detroit and as the state is poised to unroll one of its biggest financial aid packages.
The percentage of Detroit students who have completed the FAFSA form this year increased by double digits, from 44% of high school seniors last year at this time to currently 57%, which is higher than the statewide completion rate of 44.3% through mid-June, according to the Michigan College Access Network and federal data tracking form completion. The statewide rate stayed practically flat during that time.
Michigan ranks 28th nationally in completion of the FAFSA form, according to federal data tracking form completion.
School districts across the state have been encouraging students to fill out the FAFSA form as the state is awarding for the first time this fall the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, the $250 million milestone financial aid program that will cover the majority of college costs for most high school graduates and reduce their need to take out loans.
“K-12 districts and schools have been pulling out all the stops to remind students, to encourage students, to poke students who they know have not filled it out to complete the (FAFSA) for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, the Pell grant, for all the financial aid that comes from filling out the form,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, MCAN executive director. “This year has been a particularly exciting year because we can point to something new, big and very tangible that students most likely will be eligible for if they fill out the FAFSA.”
The Detroit College Access Network has been working with students in the public and charter schools in tandem with the Detroit Regional Chamber during the past school year to help students complete the FAFSA form, said Cyekeia Lee, executive director of DCAN.
She attributed the increased percentage of Detroit students filling out FAFSA forms to DCAN officials engaging with students face-to-face for conversations, decision day events and more after working with them virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coaches are continuing the push throughout the summer with coaches sending text messages, making phone calls and helping students fill out the forms over ZOOM calls, Lee added.
The most ideal goal is for 100% of students to complete the form, Lee said, but DCAN has set a 60% goal of all Detroit public and charter school student graduates before the 2023-24 school year begins.
“We know that the Michigan Achievement Scholarship will be a game-changer, in addition to students receiving the Pell Grant and the Detroit Promise Scholarship,” Lee said. “We don’t want any Detroit students to leave any money on the table. The push is to make college more of a reality.”
‘Still … More Work to Do’
The FAFSA is a form that students and their families fill out with financial information that is plugged into a formula to determines how much a student qualifies for in federal, state and financial aid from a school the student is attending to help offset the college’s listed cost of tuition and housing.
For a student from a low-income family, filling out the FAFSA can lead to a federal Pell Grant, which would award a student up to $7,395 in 2023-24 and does not need to be paid back, said Catherine Brown, senior director of policy and advocacy at the National College Action Network.
The FAFSA also can help a college student get a work-study job, a federal program that places students in part-time jobs related to their field or in community service to help pay for college costs.
Filling out the FAFSA can unlock other federal financial aid, as well as state financial aid programs and institutional aid.
“It really is kind of a magic form,” Brown said.
Completing the FAFSA is strongly associated with enrolling in college. About 92% of high school seniors who completed the FAFSA enrolled by the November following graduation compared with 51% who didn’t complete a FAFSA, according to NCAN.
The percentage of Michigan high school seniors completing the FAFSA has been decreasing since 2018 when it was 58.6%, according to data from MCAN. But it increased slightly this year from 44.2% to 44.3% as of mid-June, according to Fewins-Bliss.
Brown said Michigan has made progress in getting forms completed this year, even though it is still below the national average of FAFSA form completion of 52.8%. She noted a 8.7% increase in FAFSA completion this year among Michigan schools serving students of color.
“But they still have more work to do,” Brown said. “This is great time for counselors and school staff and students and families to redouble their efforts for spreading the word, outreach, helping students fill out the form. It can be complicated. It can take a supportive person to understand the process to help get students through.”
How FAFSA Process Works
The FAFSA generally comes out in October, though it is slated to come out in December this year for the Class of 2024 as federal officials adjust the application process.
High school seniors going to college are encouraged to fill out the form as soon as it comes out so they avoid having financial aid run out, but students can fill out the form through September.
Although numerous events have been held statewide during the school year to encourage FAFSA completion, the push is still on.
Aisha Cunningham, a school counselor at University Prep Art and Design High School, is working with 50 students this summer to make sure they have lined up their housing, meal plans, appointments with advisers and other steps to be sure they are ready to begin college.
The majority of those students have filled out the FAFSA form, but she is still checking in with those who haven’t. High school graduates who have not taken steps to get a higher education often have other struggles that are distracting them, such as family issues. Cunningham said she reminds those students they have something to offer throughout their life, and filling out a FAFSA, getting financial aid and going to college is necessary step to take on that journey.