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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

To encourage college enrollment, FAFSA completion is now an MPS graduation requirement

Emily Files
Hamilton High School recent graduate Nawal Odeh spoke at a press conference encouraging MPS students to fill out the FAFSA. Odeh is studying nursing at UWM, after filling out the FAFSA and receiving enough scholarships to cover tuition.

The pandemic put a dent in the number of Wisconsin students pursuing higher education. In Milwaukee Public Schools, only about a third of 2020 graduates enrolled in college, down from about 40% the year before.

To reverse that trend, MPS made FAFSA completion a graduation requirement starting this year. The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which gives students access to grants and loans to pay for college.

The window to complete the FAFSA opened Oct. 1. On Tuesday, MPS, UWM, MATC and local officials held a press conference at Hamilton High School on the southwest side to promote FAFSA completion.

"I want every single young person in Milwaukee to be ambitious, to have big dreams," said Milwaukee Mayor and MPS alum Cavalier Johnson. "I want them to take the steps that can lead to success. And filling out the FAFSA is an important part of that."

Last year, about 50% of MPS graduates filled out the FAFSA, which is lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to College Access Coordinator Ericca Pollack. The hope is that the new graduation requirement will increase how many students complete the federal aid application and enroll in college.

Pollack said the district has enough staff and community partners to work one-on-one with students on the sometimes complex paperwork. Families will be able to opt out if they choose.

>>For help with the FAFSA, see MPS FAFSA completion events here

"Really what the FAFSA requirement does is mandate a conversation about FAFSA with school counselors and advisors," said Pollack. "There is an opportunity once that conversation is had, for families to submit a non-participation form. So in no way will it be a hindrance to students to graduate. We just want to ensure that students and families who are concerned about the financial barriers of going to college are able to have that important and critical conversation."

One challenge high school counselors face when assisting students with the FAFSA is parent cooperation. Some don’t want to share sensitive financial information. Mayor Johnson said, as a first generation college student, he had that exact problem.

"It wasn’t an experience that my parents had ever gone through, so they didn’t feel comfortable giving up information from their tax returns, social security numbers, all that sort of stuff," Johnson said. "So for first generation college students that’s a hurdle we continually have to try to overcome."

Eventually, Johnson convinced his parents, and the FAFSA gave him access to a full ride to UW-Madison.

Pollack said counselors sometimes meet with families seven or eight times before they feel comfortable sharing the financial information required on the aid application.

Hamilton High School 2022 graduate Nawal Odeh spoke at the Tuesday’s press conference. She said the Hamilton college and career center (CACC) was where she found the help she needed. MPS has college and career centers at every high school.

"I’d never heard of FAFSA and had no idea what tax returns were," Odeh said. "And as a first-generation college student, this process was not only new to me but also to my family. With the help of the CACC advisor, I was able to complete the FAFSA in a few days."

Odeh received enough scholarships to cover tuition at UWM, where she is studying nursing.

The cost of tuition is often a major barrier to college enrollment. But starting in fall 2023, UW schools will have zero tuition cost for students whose families make less than $62,000 a year.

Leaders hope the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, combined with MPS’s new FAFSA requirement, will show students that college can be affordable, and encourage them to earn a degree.

Editor's note: MPS is a financial contributor to WUWM. WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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