By Angela “Hoppy” Merryman, GEAR UP TN Site Coordinator
If you were visiting Anderson County today you would likely hear the phrase “It’s FAF$A season!” For Anderson County, I am head coach of a team with a goal of helping 500 seniors and former graduates complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the first step to getting federal and state aid to help students pay for college.
Our January FAFSA season push is important as we are a rural county with a high percentage of low-income families. We are striving to make sure our students qualify for every dollar that might be available. This includes the limited first-come, first-served Tennessee Student Assistant Awards, among many others. With money on the line, we are blitzing like an NFL team playing for a Super Bowl title to make sure our students submit their FAFSAs before their school or scholarship’s deadline. Helping students submit the FAFSA is a job that requires a playbook and teamwork, but one that I happily take on.
Looking at an economically-challenged parent or student and saying, “You are going to get almost $12,000 to attend college,” and removing some of that major barrier, makes all the effort worthwhile.
The build up to our season is designed to create the kind of anticipation football fans have for the Super Bowl. We start at the beginning of the school year advertising the date for our FAF$A party and providing parents and community members with information at places such as ballgames, open house, concerts, food pantries, and parent meetings. Most of our material is provided free through the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) or federal aid, so the cost to our school and district is low. Our greatest investment is time and energy. Our kids can struggle to remember the term FAFSA, so we never mention the event without adding that free cookies and hot chocolate will be available. Those small incentives do not cost us much to provide, but can make the difference for a student who is unfamiliar with the importance of the FAFSA.
Our team spends time in the fall preparing for their roles for the January event. Our culinary arts teacher plans the food; our teachers and principals prepare the facilities; and our parents, students, and staff spread the word that a party is happening after winter break. Volunteers are recruited, and it’s game on the first Saturday once school is back in session.
As I grow more anxious about the crowd, I remind myself of students who have attended in the past.
A girl once living in a single-wide trailer with eight others now attends private college with $14,700 in funding because she submitted the FAFSA. There’s the athlete raised by a grandmother, who is now one of our volunteers, who combines funding received after submitting the FAFSA with a scholarship to pay tuition, housing, and books, plus gas to get home on holidays. Those real-life examples make our event worthwhile.
The day we’ve been preparing for finally arrives, and students and parents roll through our doors with tax returns and supplemental income data in hand, hoping to score big in college financial aid and meet their TNPromise requirement of filing before Feb. 15 . Our FAF$A party ended this year with 115 FAFSAs completed in one day. We still have more to go -there are six additional after party nights we have scheduled to offer help to additional students and families. Last year, we completed a total 404 FAFSAs in our two high schools, representing 80 percent of our seniors.
In its second year, the FAF$A party and the after party nights have become almost as much of a local tradition as our cross-county rival football game. Thanks to our team of volunteers – grandparents, local business leaders, college staff members, volunteers from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and TSAC, parents, students, teachers, and friends- everyone wins at this event.
As my husband and I walked through a rainy school parking lot after our 10-hour FAF$A party last week, he laughed and said, “I missed watching the playoff games for this.” It wasn’t a complaint, but rather an affirmation that my NFL-loving spouse believes our FAF$A party is something worthy of his time. He is neither an educator, nor a FAFSA expert, but as a dad and first-generation college student himself, he knows the value of a college education and the obstacles students can face in accessing one. As intimidating as the FAFSA can be, in Anderson County we are celebrating the opportunity to afford and attend college.
If you want more information, contact Hoppy Merryman at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to show you how to bring a FAF$A party to a high school in your town!