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More aid awareness means more college grads, proposal hopes

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(The Center Square) – High school seniors may soon complete financial aid applications for college, even if they won’t qualify.

The requirement, proposed in Senate Bill 750 that was approved in the upper chamber earlier this week, is meant to better inform students about their options, according to the legislation’s prime sponsor.

“In many cases, our students are missing opportunities for higher education because they are unaware of financial assistance and resources that might be available to them,” said Sen. Scott Martin, R-Strasburg. “They should graduate high school with all the available tools and resources needed to pursue higher education.”

Specifically, states that require students to complete the free federal application for student aid, or FASFA, have seen monumental increases in completion rates, Martin said. Doing so, he added, directly corresponds to higher enrollment numbers in post-secondary programs. Louisiana, which enacted legislation for the 2017-2018 school year now has a 79% completion rate, representing a 35% jump in the past decade.

In Pennsylvania, 53% of students filled out FASFA last year.

Lacking awareness means Pell grants, designed for lower-income families, often go unclaimed – $115 million alone in Pennsylvania during the last academic year. Across the country, nearly $4 billion went unused, according to the National College Attainment Network.

The maximum grant per student totaled $6,895 – an amount that doesn’t need to be repaid.

“Pennsylvanians shouldn’t have to risk missing out on the opportunity to train for quality jobs simply because they think they can’t afford it,” Martin said. “Completing the FAFSA helps open doors for young people to advance their careers, which can help reverse the troubling economic and demographic trends that have plagued our Commonwealth for many years.”

Lawmakers and the governor’s administration have reiterated a desire to balance the need for affordable avenues to incentivize and grow its workforce, while keeping its educational institutions afloat amidst a difficult economic environment and declining enrollment. Even with Pell Grants, the cost of tuition if often more than many families are able to afford.

Closing the gap for low-income and minority students, as well addressing staffing shortages and the needs of an aging population are high priorities for both Senate Republicans and the Shapiro administration.

“Education empowerment and access is a priority, and I believe this new policy proposal will help Pennsylvania achieve similar successes as other states,” Martin said.

Four Democrats voted against the bill, though The Center Square was unable to confirm why. During a committee hearing earlier this month, some expressed concerns that bill put too much onus on the students and their families to meet the mandate, rather than schools.

Martin’s spokesperson said the legislation had since been amended to alleviate that concern and provide an opt-out for students whose parents don’t comply.

The bill awaits consideration in the House.

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