This week, the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education and the University of Alaska is hosting its first “FAFSA Summit,” a two-day conference aimed at raising the number of students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Nationally, Alaska has the lowest rate of high schoolers who apply for the federal aid program, which offers grants and scholarships for college and career training. Only 28% of Alaska’s high school seniors do the paperwork.
Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education Executive Director Sana Efird said the lack of participation in the program signals trouble for Alaska’s workforce.
“We have historically been on the bottom of FAFSA completion,” she said. “And that means that Alaskans lose access to very critical funding sources to support post-secondary education and workforce needs.”
No training and no diploma can lead to no job opportunities, she said.
State and federal scholarships for college-bound students are dependent on FAFSA applications, she said, and so are many career and technical training program scholarships.
“We usually ask students, ‘What are the barriers to you actually enrolling in a post-secondary program?’ And the Number 1 reason, the Number 1 barrier is having money and access to funding,” she said.
University of Alaska enrollment has not been high in recent years. Student enrollment peaked in 2012 and took a steep decline after budget cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic. This year the university saw some growth in student numbers, but there has been no rebound in applicants for the aid.
Efird said one reason students neglect the paperwork is that it is difficult to fill out, but this December a simplified version will be available as the result of federal legislation from 2021.
A number of speakers at the two-day summit will address the need for more participation and strategies to improve it. Efird was especially excited about a speaker from Louisiana.
“Louisiana is Number 1 in FAFSA completion. And we’re on the bottom,” she said. “We want to learn, ‘What did they do? What are initiatives that helped them?’”
She said Louisiana’s high FAFSA completion rate has led to higher enrollment in postsecondary opportunities there.
Efird said outcomes like that show that increased interest in the FAFSA is crucial to statewide success.
“If an individual actually gets help to pay for their programs, they are much more likely to go and pursue bettering their outcomes,” she said. “That not only will help them personally by improving their financial situation for their family, their community, but also statewide for supporting our workforce needs.”
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.