I wish all my mornings could be like this – visiting schools filled with excited students, as they explore their options and take action to turn their college dreams into realities.
Students, teachers and administrators packed the Media Center at Gaithersburg High School (GHS) in Gaithersburg, Maryland as they prepared for their “FAFSA Fill-in Day” to encourage seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at school, and find out more information regarding other financial aid options, and scholarships. They’d been kind enough to ask a team of us from the Department to join them – and there was no way I was going to miss out on the experience!
School spirit filled the room. A sea of blue Gaithersburg apparel adorned the crowd in the Media Center, with the phrase “Blue Crew” emblazoned on shirts and sweaters. Multiple flags from around the world hung from the ceiling, celebrating the diversity of the Gaithersburg High School community.
In the crowd, a familiar face stood out to our Department of Education (ED) staff. GHS English Resource Teacher and former Teacher Ambassador Fellow, Ms. Jennifer Bado-Aleman, welcomed attendees and announced that Federal Student Aid representatives were on hand to answer questions about the application. As seniors began filling out their forms, I was invited to a roundtable where students described their experiences in using the FAFSA, shared their college and career aspirations, and even opened up about some higher education fears.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college. Unfortunately, I didn’t look into it until last year,” one senior explained. “We need to start a plan by our freshman year,” interjected another. When I asked about the college information they needed, some mentioned: information about which majors specific colleges offer, guidance on how much to emphasize extra-curricular activities on their college applications, and how much their average SAT scores would count in how colleges considered candidates. Others said they took a step further and first looked at careers they wanted to pursue, before narrowing down their list of schools with a strong focus in that field.
They were pleased to learn that ED had released our College Ratings framework. President Obama asked our Department to design a ratings system that will give parents and students more information about their college choices by recognizing institutions that focus on accessibility, affordability and completion. The students also offered their opinions on how and by which measures colleges should be rated, including the quality of their majors, their graduation rates, and the employment rates of their graduates. Others chimed in on ratings options as the conversation continued:
“Financial aid to students,” Blake volunteered.
“Internship placements,” added Joanne.
“Tuition rates,” said Hakeem.
Parker thought colleges should be rated on “freshman retention, and the employment of their graduates. [Colleges] need to consistently be living up to their expectation.”
I was glad to be able to share the many ED resources and tools that help students guide and focus their college search, like the College Navigator, which allows students to search for colleges based on majors, institution type and geography, and the College Scorecard, which gives students access to more information about a school’s affordability and value.
Paying for college was another important theme; and several students expressed fears about student debt. “My siblings all went to college and now struggle to pay their loans,” DJ noted. Blake told me he’d been considering out-of-state schools, but didn’t want to be saddled with years of loans to repay.
I’ve heard from many students who worry about how they will manage their student debt. That is why President Obama outlined a set of actions that can help borrowers better manage their student loan debt, including expanding his Pay As You Earn plan so more borrowers can cap monthly payments at 10 percent of their income. In addition, those that enter public service full-time may have their loans forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Since President Obama took office, our Department has made key investment in federal student aid such as creating the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit, raising the maximum Pell Grant award by $1,000, and bringing millions of dollars back into the hands of students by eliminating billions of dollars of subsidies to banks.
The first step in receiving federal student aid is filling out the FAFSA, just like so many of the students I visited in Gaithersburg did. Getting help to pay for college is the best investment any student can make in their future. So, go for the green! Learn more and help us spread the word by visiting StudentAid.ed.gov.
Ted Mitchell is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education.