As published in The Herald Tribune
Published: Monday, February 1, 2016 at 1:00 a.m.
As students immerse themselves in the second semester of this academic year, it is a good time to recognize that a quality education is essential to getting a good job, and that education and training are becoming the new “economic development currency.” The students of our greater Sarasota community no longer compete just with students from other states, they are competing with students from other countries. While the Sarasota County School District is one of the very best in Florida, we need all hands on deck to ensure that students can compete globally and can succeed on a positive career path locally.
A quality education now usually means additional steps after high school — college and/or focused training programs. In late 2015, our region’s Talent4Tomorrow coalition examined the barriers to post-secondary education and training. Not surprisingly, being unable to afford college or technical and specialized training programs was frequently identified as an obstacle.
In response, a collaborative effort is being made to help more of our young people advance beyond high school. The Local College Access Network is composed of representatives from more than 30 organizations that came together to increase educational attainment and workforce preparedness on the Suncoast. Because these goals are priorities of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, our organization has been happy to coordinate the efforts of LCAN — with key support from partners, including the CareerEdge Funders Collaborative and Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
One of LCAN’s key projects is increasing the number of students and families who complete the most important financial assistance application.
Known as FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the only way to apply for federal student aid. Many states and colleges also use information from FAFSA to provide their own student aid. The FAFSA is currently available for the upcoming school year. It is best to fill it out as early as possible because some aid is first come, first served.
When individuals or families complete the FAFSA, they provide personal and tax information. If you’ve filed your taxes already, you may be able to automatically retrieve the information from the IRS. If you haven’t, just estimate your tax information and update it later.
The following facts confirm the importance of FAFSA completion:
Research we requested from the Florida College Access Network indicated that Sarasota County was “leaving $2.1 million of this free financial aid on the table.”
For every 10 percent a school increases its FAFSA completion rate, its college-going rate increases 3 percent.
Florida ranks 35th in FAFSA completion, but is the fifth highest state in eligibility for federal Pell Grants, which are based largely on financial need.
Students who complete the FAFSA in January through March receive twice as much state/institutional funding as students who complete the FAFSA later.
If 5 percent more Florida students were to complete the FAFSA this year, it would equal an additional $8 million in Pell dollars awarded.
Students and their families can get information about, and assistance with, FAFSA several ways:
Go to: www.fafsa.ed.gov
Visit the United Way Financial Empowerment Expo between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Feb. 6, at North Sarasota Library.
Attend special events where trained volunteers will help you complete the application: Feb. 11, 2 to 8 p.m. in the North Port High School cafeteria; and Feb. 21, 1 to 4 p.m. at Sarasota High School, Building 13, Room 101; and the Sarasota YMCA’s FAFSA Day at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus Feb. 27, 9:30 a.m. to noon.
Call 211 (the community Helpline); Star Conti, Sarasota High School: 941-955-0181; Kristen McMahon, Riverview High School: 941-923-1484; Rose Beach, North Port High School: 941-423-8558 or your student’s school counselor.
The incredible community collaboration that is increasing awareness of, and access to, the form and assistance in its completion has been fantastic. Just a few examples are that United Way has added FAFSA support to its successful tax assistance program (known as VITA). Financial Aid representatives from State College of Florida, University of South Florida—Sarasota/Manatee, and Ringling College, along with representatives from the Education Foundation, Unidos Now, the Chamber’s Young Professionals Group, and other groups are volunteering. The district is dedicating additional guidance counselor support; community organizations like Take Stock in Children and ALSO Youth have helped to plan and organize the events. Plus, the Sarasota Film Festival sponsored a video contest that tapped student creativity in getting out the FAFSA message.
Please help the new Local College Access Network increase understanding of FAFSA’s importance and awareness of the types of assistance available to help families apply. More students getting these aid dollars will help them, our employers, and the total community.
Steve Queior is president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce; the Chamber has made improving educational outcomes and workforce preparedness one of its top strategic goals.