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Row, Row, Row Your Boat #FixFAFSA
Education/Faces Of FAFSA

Growing up, I always dreamt of going to college to study music. If I were to go, I would be the first in my family to do so. In those days my mother wanted me to go to secretarial school in case my husband left me or passed away, but I knew I wanted more.

Following receiving my degree in music education from Kentucky Wesleyan College, my first job as a music teacher was at a middle school where 90 percent of students qualified for free lunch. These students didn’t have indoor plumbing in their homes, let alone pianos or other musical instruments. Though they didn’t have a lot of means, they had talent and enthusiasm, and we had a wonderful time performing for anyone who would listen.

The parents of these students told me about their struggles and hopes for their children. I was hooked on helping families get out of poverty– and I learned the only way to do it was through education.

This first job of mine lit the fire on what the goal of my career would become. The rest of my career has been dedicated to working in adult education, workforce development and higher education. It is predicted there will be 55 million new jobs by 2020, the majority of which will require some type of postsecondary credential. Yet today in America—the land of opportunity—there are more adults without a postsecondary education than there are people with degrees. Employers say they can’t find qualified employees right now. A recent survey by the Chamber of Commerce in my home state of Kentucky showed less than 10 percent of employers believe the overall workforce possesses good skills.

It is said that rowing harder doesn’t help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction. We’re in the midst of a workforce shortage that will potentially impact our economy for years to come unless we turn this boat around.

I have witnessed firsthand the barriers and struggles adults face as they try to make a better life for themselves and their families, and it often starts with the difficulty of securing financial aid as an adult. For starters, many don’t realize that aid is available to working adults, or don’t know how to estimate what they might qualify for if they apply. The short application window and inability to utilize prior-prior year data means adults cannot receive notification of eligibility with adequate time to responsibly assess their financial situation and enroll in classes, and the longer they are delayed the less likely they are to go back at all. Not to mention the inherent difficulties of an unnecessarily long application form and unfamiliar terminology pervading a majority of the questions.

How are adult-learners expected to navigate this complicated financial aid process? While they face all the same barriers as traditional and first-generation students, they have far fewer guidance resources. Some are fortunate and able to take advantage of the college support centers that do exist, like James, a man who found success and education late in life thanks to a fortunate introduction with a woman named Debra; take a moment to read his story.

But unfortunately, most are not so lucky. Not all institutions provide intense, personalized support services to potential students. And the majority of the counseling centers are not open on nights and weekends, at times when working adults might be able to take advantage of them. Many adults, despite a desire to pursue higher education, have no idea that support services may even be available to them.

So let’s #FixFAFSA and lesson the demand for a vast network of support or specialized counseling centers to ensure applications are completed and accurate. The recent Gates Foundation and National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators proposals suggests streamlining the FAFSA application process by linking it to reliable, available financial data already obtained by the government through the applicant’s IRS filings. This relatively small measure opens up countless possibilities for improving how we convince low and moderate-income adults that there are financial resources to support them earning a postsecondary credential. With the changes proposed, we are steps away from giving adults financial aid information when the file taxes. This student-centered, simplified benefits support is already being explored through Single Stop, which helps students access financial aid, tuition tax benefits, nutrition and housing assistance and other mean-tested supports that can allow adults to juggle work, family and going back to school.

We can’t increase education attainment in the U.S. by just focusing on high school students. We can however, make headway by amending our financial aid system to recognize the working-age adults desperate for college credentials. And let’s change the culture of higher education to truly value the dignity and worth of all people, young and old. Then all boats rise.