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Memphis officials launch FAFSA month to encourage high school seniors

Carver High School student Kristen Tate, spoke at a press conference about filling out the FAFSA form.
Carver High School student Kristen Tate, spoke at a press conference about filling out the FAFSA form.

Seeking to boost the percentage of Shelby County high school graduates going to college, educational advocates and community leaders have launched a month-long campaign to assist high school seniors and adult learners in completing the paperwork needed to secure financial aid.

The deadline for submitting the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA form, is Feb. 15.

The initiative was announced Thursday by city and educational leaders in Memphis in conjunction with Graduate Memphis, a program spearheaded by Leadership Memphis and Memphis Talent Dividend, two community advocacy groups.

Their goal is to get at least 80 percent of the city’s seniors to complete the FAFSA form.

As part of the campaign, community centers will hold rallies, churches will distribute resources, and college counselors will visit high schools to help guide seniors through the FAFSA paperwork.

“We need to do everything in our power to get kids to get to college,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. “I know there are challenges at every level of education attainment.”

Eighty-three percent of the district’s students already have signed up for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which begins this fall and essentially waives tuition at a state community college or technical school for two years. Local leaders hope the Promise Scholarship will boost Memphis’ dismally low college completion rate.

In October, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson praised seniors at Carver High School, the first Memphis school to sign up all of its seniors for Tennessee Promise. But the real challenge is getting those same seniors to complete and turn in their FAFSA form. Without the form, students are ineligible for Tennessee Promise.

At Carver High School, which once was at risk of being shuttered by the district for under-enrollment and dismal academic results, only 48 of the school’s 80 seniors had successfully completed their FAFSA form as of Dec. 5.

The problem has stumped Memphis’ education community for years. Last year, a third of the district’s seniors failed to complete their FAFSA forms. Reasons ranged from intimidation and fear to confusion from students and parents alike.

Just under half of Memphis’ graduates went on to a post-secondary school last year, according to the district. The dismal rate, one of the lowest in the nation, is especially frustrating in a community coping with high unemployment and crime rates. The city has spent more than $5 billion fighting poverty in a single year, five times as much as it spent on the school system, according to some estimates.

Why higher percentages of students don’t go to college is complex and includes lack of preparation and affordability. But often, it’s the FAFSA form that stands between students and scholarship and grant money. A major challenge is getting parents to hand over W-2 tax statements. Many parents fear they will lose government benefits or think they have to wait until they complete their tax returns, which can be too late to qualify for scholarships and grants.

“This is really a campaign geared toward parents,” said Bernice Butler, the director of Memphis Talent Dividend and Graduate Memphis.

Kristen Tate, a 17-year-old senior at Carver High, said she learned of the FAFSA requirement recently at Bickford Community Center. She said completing the form online was fairly straightforward and that her mother now must fill out information about her income, savings and employment status.

“I didn’t know any of that information,” Kristen said Thursday. “But I think this will be a great opportunity for me.”

The deadline to apply to FAFSA is Feb. 15. For more information on events and how to become a mentor to a Memphis high school senior, visit http://www.fafsamemphis.com/upcoming-events.html.

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