Statewide campaign serves students with most to gain, but least likely to apply for financial aid
Education organizations and advocates across Washington have a message for students: there’s money for you to continue your education and training beyond high school, and we want to help you access it.
The Washington Student Achievement Council rolled out their annual 12th Year Campaign in October. At 12th Year Campaign events, experts and trained volunteers help students and their families with financial aid and college applications.
This year, the campaign is bigger than ever before. That’s because a lot has changed, said WSAC Director Michael Meotti. Not only did a new law expand a free college tuition program (Washington College Grant) for qualified students, but WSAC will soon roll out a text messaging tool to help students apply for financial aid. Plus, the Washington College Grant will support people pursuing short-term certificates as well as two and four-year degrees. Beginning in 2020–21, the grant will also support people in apprenticeships.
With so many changes, there’s a lot to communicate.
“Roughly half of Washington’s high school seniors will seek out financial aid,” Meotti said. “But we want to search for the seniors who wouldn’t apply for financial aid or who don’t know if they want to further their education.”
Gov. Jay Inslee signed a major education bill last session that established one of the most progressive higher education investments in the country. A part of the bill created the Washington College Grant, expanding a program (formerly called the State Need Grant), which means more students qualify for free tuition than ever before. Next year, students are eligible if they sit at or below the state’s median family income. For example, families of four at $50,500 or less would be eligible for the full award. Families of four with incomes up to $92,000 a year — or a single person up to $46,000 — could get a partial grant.
“Continued education or technical training after high school opens up a better, well-paying future for every student who seeks out those opportunities,” Inslee said. “Legislators worked hard this past session to ensure more students have access to these educational programs and policies.”
In Washington, there are two different applications for financial aid, but people only need to file one. U.S. citizens and eligible non-citizens should file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. People who can’t file the FAFSA because of immigration status can file the Washington Application for State Financial Aid.
Washington placed 48th in the nation last year for the number of students who completed the FAFSA, a high number of them coming from lower-income households. That means Washington students missed out on more than $50 million in student financial aid.
“Many students may not have a sense of value about why they would continue their education,” Meotti said. “Some are interested, but may think that financial aid doesn’t cover career-connected programs, like an auto service technician at a community college — but the Washington College Grant covers that in addition to welding and other career programs. So, we want students and their families across the state to know what’s available.”
WSAC’s campaign also aligns with Inslee’s Career-Connected Learning initiative, which aims to connect 100,000 young people with employer internships, registered apprenticeships and other learning opportunities. Many of these new jobs will not require a traditional four-year degree. While Inslee supports all types of higher education outcomes, he said this program opens up more options for students regardless of if they pursue a four-year-degree or a registered apprenticeship. WSAC also makes financial aid available to undocumented students.
Getting the message out is the first step. The second step is helping students finish the applications. Meotti said that’s why WSAC is also about to launch a new, text messaging tool called “Otter” that offers low-income students help with the FAFSA and WASFA. They can get help 24/7. Arizona is the only other state to roll out a similar tool.
Otter will send text-based nudges to seniors about important deadlines for financial aid and college. Research shows that this strategy can boost financial aid filing and college enrollment.
“We are the first state where the government made a financial commitment to use technology to support lower-income students and help them with financial aid applications,” Meotti said.
The 12th Year Campaign doesn’t target just high school seniors and their parents. WSAC has also rolled out resources to local organizations so they can hold events for adults to get help with college and financial aid applications. WSAC is building on existing partnerships with community leaders, nonprofits and community-based foundations, such as a local Chambers of Commerce or the Big Brother Big Sister Program.
Superintendent Chris Reykdal from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said he would support a bill that would require high school seniors to complete a financial aid application before graduating.
“The application is the most powerful way for low- and middle-income families to pay for college,” Reykdal said.
During the next five years, Washington employers will need an estimated 740,000 workers in such fields as advanced manufacturing, health care technology, maritime and clean energy. The governor said it’s just one more reason why the economy needs students from all educational pathways.
“We have one of the most progressive financial aid systems in the country now and it reflects a key part about why we’re ranked as the number one state to live and work,” Inslee said. “We wants students to follow whatever career and passion they choose, and we don’t want them facing massive loan burdens in order to fulfill those dreams.”
You can learn more about applying for the FAFSA or WAFSA on the WSAC’s website.