This op-ed originally appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, the headlines surrounding education have been consistent: Students have suffered from significant learning losses, and the college-going rate has been on a downward spiral. But now, education partners in Memphis and all across the state are working together to turn the tide to create greater opportunities for all students. 

We know that high school seniors who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are more likely to enroll in higher education, persist in their college coursework, and obtain a degree. Yet, even with thousands of dollars in scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid available, additional job training or education after high school has not been the end result for too many Memphis students. 

State education leaders realized something had to change. As a result, they’ve established new goals and set in motion an array of initiatives to create a new momentum year in college-going and FAFSA completion. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) has set a 60 percent college-going rate goal for the class of 2023.

To reach this goal, each county in Tennessee will need to strive for an increase of more than 7 percent in their county college-going rate. The current college-going rate for the class of 2021 in Shelby County is 49 percent, a significant drop from the county’s class of 2019 rate of 60 percent. In addition to the college-going rate goal, THEC has set a 90 percent FAFSA Submission goal for this year’s graduating class. 

Innovation grants grow from six to ten schools

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) is pleased to partner in this work and we are going a step further with a FAFSA challenge in Memphis and Shelby County. 

Last year, SCORE provided FAFSA innovation grants to six Memphis-Shelby County schools to encourage all students to fill out the FAFSA. At first glance, the numbers seemed positive. Memphis had an 85 percent FAFSA filing rate. However, closer inspection revealed that only 65 percent of the FAFSA applications filed were complete with accurate parent or guardian information. Seeing this gap inspired SCORE to boost our work and commitment to students in Memphis and Shelby County. 

Knowing we needed to do more, SCORE has increased the number of FAFSA innovation grants from six to ten Memphis-Shelby County schools this year. Schools that receive the innovation grants have agreed to identify a FAFSA coordinator, set a FAFSA completion goal, track progress, and schedule time for seniors to complete the FAFSA application during the school day.

We have also worked with the Memphis Area Presidents’ Council, a network of college presidents and educational leaders in the Memphis area, to look for additional ways we could come together as a community to help encourage greater FAFSA participation among the Class of 2023. To that end, we’ve formed the Memphis Area FAFSA Initiative, a partnership between the school district, local public higher education institutions, and community organizations to increase awareness about the FAFSA and develop a sense of urgency for why the FAFSA is vitally important for students thinking about enrolling in a postsecondary institution after high school. 

But talking about student participation among a room full of adults isn’t going to bring students to the table. Personal connections matter most. So, throughout the 2022-2023 school year, our SCORE team is attending several events in Memphis to meet with students and school counselors about the importance of FAFSA completion. We are encouraged by the response we’ve received so far. 

FAFSA is a student’s gateway to the postsecondary degree or credential

Dr. Jamia Stokes

On October 18, SCORE partnered with the University of Memphis, Southwest Tennessee Community College, TCAT Memphis, and Memphis-Shelby County Schools to host a Memphis Area FAFSA Challenge kick-off event to provide students and their families with information on how to complete the FAFSA accurately and to share admission and scholarship information from the partnering colleges. The evening was a huge success. Students and their families were engaged and eager to learn about the many financial options available to them. The partnering colleges are committed to building on that success by hosting additional financial aid information sessions on their respective campuses this winter. 

We know Tennessee students are thinking about their next steps and wondering what the future holds. But we also know that the process of filling out college applications and various financial aid forms can be daunting. We are determined to help students learn more about the importance of FAFSA and share resources to help them complete the process so that they are not discouraged by the tedious paperwork. 

The FAFSA is a student’s gateway to the postsecondary degree or credential that could lead to a lifetime of opportunity. By getting into schools earlier in the school year and making direct connections with students and counselors, our goal is to help guide them through the FAFSA process and set them on a course for success after high school. 

Dr. Jamia Stokes is SCORE’s senior director of postsecondary pathways.