RIVERSIDE – Nearly $3 billion in free federal grant money is left on the table each year—including nearly half a billion in California alone—when graduating seniors fail to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the accompanying Cal Grant application according to a research report by NerdWallet.com, a consumer-friendly financial literacy website. Graduating seniors from the class of 2014 in California lost out on $396,401,205 in federal Pell Grant funds in 2013-2014—the highest total of all 50 states. A new initiative from the Riverside County Office of Education, Race to Submit, aims to address these missed opportunities by ensuring that students, parents, and educators are actively helping students gain access to critical financial aid dollars.
Launched in late January, Riverside County Office of Education’s Race to Submit initiative website not only provides a wealth of FAFSA-related resources, but also displays a regularly-updated scoreboard of all high schools in Riverside County in order to gauge how many students are following through and submitting their FAFSA. The scoreboard data originates from the California Student Aid Commission and is an indicator of the efforts of school administrators to make FAFSA completion a priority.
“We want parents, counselors, principals, board members, and community members to look for their schools on the Race to Submit scoreboard to make sure they aren’t missing out on the millions of dollars that are available to help students achieve their post-secondary dreams,” said Mark Lenoir, Principal-in-Residence at the Riverside County Office of Education’s Leadership Institute.
In 2012-2013, 60% of Riverside County students completed the FAFSA. For 2015-2016, the goal is to drive completion rates up to 75% with an ultimate goal of reaching 93% by the 2018-2019 year. Of the 87 high schools in Riverside County, the highest FAFSA completion from the 2012-2013 year was Hemet Academy for Applied Academics and Technology in Hemet Unified School District with 100% of its 30 seniors completing the FAFSA. Nuview Bridge Early College High School achieved 86% completion of the FAFSA from a senior class of 96. Riverside’s Poly High School held the highest completion rate of 72.6% in 2012-2013 for a comprehensive high school in Riverside County. Only 56% of comprehensive schools in Riverside County were above the county average of 60% FAFSA completion in 2012-2013.
In 2014, a diverse group of K-12, higher education, private industry, and community leaders from the Riverside/San Bernardino county area joined together to tackle a wide variety of educational issues as part of the Riverside County Education Collaborative (RCEC). Within months, RCEC goals aimed at increasing postsecondary access and attainment received attention from President Barack Obama.
“The Riverside County Education Collaborative in California has set a goal of increasing FAFSA completion by 30% and they are working to ensure that fewer students need remedial classes when they get to college,” President Obama said at a White House event on December 4, 2014.
Along with FAFSA completion, RCEC initiatives include increasing the number of colleges to which students apply and decreasing the number of students needing remediation upon entering college.
“Our pledge at RCOE is that all students in Riverside County will graduate from high school well prepared for college and the workforce,” said Riverside County Superintendent of Schools Kenneth M. Young. “Access to billions of dollars of financial aid is available to the 30,000+ seniors nearing graduation in 87 Riverside County high schools. With the Race to Submit initiative, we are determined to help students unlock access to this treasure trove of funds and raise the bar of expectations with students, school administrators, parents, and the residents of Riverside County.”
Consider the following research related to the importance of financial aid for college and beyond:
- The Riverside/San Bernardino metro area has the lowest proportion of adult residents with postsecondary degrees (27%) of any urban area in the United States (Lumina Foundation)
- Cost is the reason most often cited by qualified students for choosing not to go to college, yet many students never apply for aid. More than 80% of qualified students who do not enroll in college, cited cost and the need for financial aid as the key barrier (Access to College Financial Aid in California, EdTrust West, February 2013)
- For every dollar that California invests in students who go to college, the state will get a net return on investment of $4.50 in the form of increased taxes on graduates’ earnings and savings on social services and incarceration (Campaign for College Opportunity)
“As a county office of education, we are taking aim on this because we want to raise the bar of expectations in this region from simply talking about post-secondary education, to taking specific actions that explicitly lead to higher college-going rates,” Lenoir said.
Several Riverside County high schools have already activated plans to drive up FAFSA submissions on their campus after the 2015-2016 FAFSA forms were released on January 2, 2015.
- A four–month campaign at Rubidoux High School (Jurupa USD) started in November with the creation of small groups of seniors who were led through the financial aid journey by school administrators. As students complete each step of the process (requesting FAFSA PIN/password, filling out financial aid worksheet, attending workshops, etc.), they are being rewarded with prizes (school gear, gift cards, etc.). In addition, teachers whose classes reach certain FAFSA completion thresholds compete for prizes (ice cream party, funds for additional class supplies).
- In January, counselors at Shadow Hills High School in Indio (Desert Sands USD) are conducting 12th grade financial aid guidance lessons about FAFSA, the Cal Grant, the Dream Act, and other scholarships. Students are given a worksheet to take home to have their parents/guardians complete with pertinent financial information needed for the FAFSA. Two weeks later, all students return to the counseling center and complete the FAFSA/Dream Act using all the key information. Shortly thereafter, two additional tickets for entrance into graduation are given to students if their parent/guardian attended one of two parent nights that focus on FAFSA.