Thousands of dollars for Washington state college students who just need to fill out a form

“Solving this one problem isn’t going to solve every problem when it comes to the staggering student loan challenges that so many students, borrowers, and families face. There’s a whole lot that needs to be done on that front, and I am certainly committed to keeping up the fight to make college more affordable and reduce the burden of student loan debt.”

If I told you that all a student had to do to potentially access thousands of dollars toward their college education was fill out a form, that seems like something they would all want to do, right?

So if I told you that fewer than half of Washington state high school seniors fill that form out, and that they leave tens of millions of dollars on the table each year, and that those who need the most support are too often the least likely to take that first important step — that would be pretty shocking, right?

Well sadly, both of those facts are true. But thankfully, this is something we can fix.

Here’s the tool I am talking about: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This tool is not just a form, it’s a gateway to incredible opportunities. Nearly every student is eligible for some form of financial aid. For those who need the most help, the federal Pell Grant is worth up to $6,100 per year. The Washington State Need Grant can provide up to another $9,700 toward annual college costs, including housing and food. The College Bound Scholarship in Washington goes even further for students who get enrolled in middle school. Taking out a reasonable amount of student loans can also help address leftover gaps for living costs.

As of this year, the FAFSA is even easier to complete — you can complete the form through apps on both Apple and Android devices, as well as online. I’m proud that Washington state offers more grants based on financial need than most states, and that we have continued to grow our investment in these programs over time. In Washington, undocumented students can also fill out the Washington Application for State Financial Aid, or WASFA, online. The information the WASFA collects is strictly confidential and cannot be used for any purpose other than determining state aid — it does not share any information related to a student’s or their family’s immigration status.

But here is the problem I was referring to: Far too many students and families in Washington state — and particularly working families — don’t even know they could be eligible for this aid, because they aren’t even filling out the form! This year, our FAFSA completion among high school seniors was lower than nearly every other state. In fact, Washington state is ranked a shocking 48th out of the 50 states and D.C. when it comes to high school seniors who filled out the form to get aid this academic year.

To put this ranking of 48th in a bit more context, our low FAFSA completion rates mean that up to $50 million is left on the table each year by those high school seniors who would otherwise qualify for federal grants. This financial aid can be used for many opportunities on a student’s education and career pathway, not just four-year colleges, but also at community and technical colleges to earn associate degrees or complete workforce training programs. At more than 180 high schools throughout Washington, fewer than half of graduating seniors fill out the FAFSA. Some prospective students and their families get discouraged by the FAFSA form, and don’t know who to turn to for help. Other students who are already in college may forget to fill out the form every year to keep their aid.

Thankfully, this is a problem that can be solved. But it’s going to take a lot of work from all of us to do it.

School counselors, principals, teachers, superintendents, business leaders, community organizations, social service providers, and colleges themselves need to help people navigate the process and encourage FAFSA completion. One way for high schools to get involved is through the 12th Year Campaign, which supports students through the college and financial aid application process. School districts can compete to improve student filing of FAFSA and WASFA — but unfortunately, not every school district and high school are fully participating. Schools can access a secure web portal to know who has completed the FAFSA and who may still need help. For business leaders, helping students complete the FAFSA will set them on to completing an essential credential and filling 740,000 job openings in our state by 2021. And students, if you want to get information in person, College Goal Washington is now hosting events around the state through the end of the school year. You can find out where the events will be held by clicking this link. The map will be updated weekly.

I’m also working in Congress to simplify the form. Since 2010, most users can automatically import their tax data from the IRS to the FAFSA with just a few clicks — meaning no more inputting all of those tax forms by hand. In addition, I led a successful effort to allow FAFSA applicants to use more reliable tax data on file from two years prior, rather than their most recent tax filing. This change makes completing the FAFSA easier, ensuring that you don’t need to complete your financial aid forms at the same time you’re filing taxes.

Completing the FAFSA can be challenging for our most vulnerable students. I have fought and was successful in making the form simpler for homeless youth, but we can do more. It is important to restate that K-12 schools and college financial aid offices are required to help our homeless youth and former foster youth get the resources they need to put a roof over the heads in college.

This fall, millions of students in high schools across the country are beginning to think about how to change the world. They’re pondering their options for going to a two- or four-year college or enrolling in workforce training programs. And millions of adults, too, will be considering whether they might want to go back to school to continue their learning to upgrade and attain new skills.

Solving this one problem isn’t going to solve every problem when it comes to the staggering student loan challenges that so many students, borrowers, and families face. There’s a whole lot that needs to be done on that front, and I am certainly committed to keeping up the fight to make college more affordable and reduce the burden of student loan debt.

But if we can invest $50 million every single year in Washington state students and their education — money that is already on the table and waiting to be taken — simply by encouraging more of them to simply fill out a form, that’s a good step to take.