By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Going to college is an aspiration for countless high school seniors. But a roadblock to that goal in many households is a lack of financial resources to pay for tuition, books and the dorm.
Millions of dollars in financial aid is available to help cover education costs, lawmakers and education officials say, but much of the assistance goes unused because graduating seniors and their families simply do not ask for it.
About 11,000 Washington state high school graduates failed to fill out federal financial-aid applications in 2017 that would have enabled them to receive a share of about $50 million in financial aid, according to an analysis by the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), a state agency that manages state financial aid.
That aid could have helped pave the way for students to attend a community college, a four-year college or some private universities.
Kitsap County students left more than $1.5 million in financial aid on the table by not completing the needed application, according to the same analysis. This means 331 high school seniors, or 56 percent of the total number of graduates, overlooked financial aid opportunities by not applying.
Kitsap ranked among the bottom 10 counties in the state last year of its high school graduates who failed to fill out a key financial aid form, said state Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, of the 26th Legislative District.
Randall is the district’s first-term senator. She chairs the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.
“There is no cultural pressure in this area to go to college,” Randall, a South Kitsap High grad, said. “I knew early on I wanted to go to college but not many of my graduating class went to college.
“With the shipyard being the biggest employer, the thought has been that you can always go there, get a good job and buy a home.”
This view is echoed by Dave Reichel, a career counselor at South Kitsap High School. Reichel helps students plan what to do next after graduation.
“We live in a blue-collar area,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t want to go to college. Many, for example, want to work at the shipyard, get into construction, be an auto mechanic or join the military.
“So, those kids don’t need to fill out the FAFSA,” Reichel said.
The school counselor offered other reasons why the financial aid form may not be a consideration.
Other explanations are a lack of motivation by kids or parents, suspicion of filling out a federal form requiring a Social Security number and the mistaken belief that the student would not qualify for aid are other explanations.
“In some cases, parents think it up to the kids to do the paperwork,” Riechel said. ”If the parents are not involved in doing the paperwork, the most a student can hope for is a $3,500 loan, certainly not enough to get one into a university.”
The report of low financial aid requests is startling, Reichel admits, but he also feels the statistics fail to reflect the reality of all local students.
“There is a bias that says if you don’t go to a four-year university, you are settling for second-best. These numbers don’t reflect other pathways individuals take, like joining the military or working at the shipyard. These are equally valued life choices,” he said.
The legislator and the school official said there still is an important need to increase financial aid applications in order to promote educational opportunities.
“I give three presentations a year to parents and students on how to complete the FAFSA,” Reichel noted. “We also hold ‘Fill Out Your FAFSA Nights,’ where financial aid experts come to help and answer questions.”
The school counselor also makes himself available after school to meet with parents and students to discuss financial aid opportunities and to complete the form. In his six years at South Kitsap High, Reichel estimates he has worked with hundreds of students and families to fill out the document.
“I have put in a lot of unpaid hours helping kids do the paperwork. We are here to help them through this,” he stressed.
Randall believes tweaks can be made to the system to increase the number of students learning about financial aid.
“Everything is on the table,” she said of ways to improve the situation. For example, some states require students to complete a FAFSA in order to graduate.
“I’m not sure if that is the way to go, but it can be looked at,” she said.
The legislator said it is important to look for resources in the community to increase applications.
“Graduate Strong” in Kitsap County is such a resource, the lawmaker said. The program trains local librarians so they can assist students and families with filling out the FAFSA.
Good living-wage jobs require some level of education or training after high school, according to the WSAC. In the next five years, more than 70 percent of jobs in Washington state will require a credential or degree, but only 56 percent of Washingtonians ages 25-44 have completed post-education or a training program after high school, according to the agency.
The state senator said there’s some sense of urgency in preparing graduating students for post-high-school work careers.
“Washington is going to have a lot of new jobs coming that will require post-K-12 education. So, we need to connect kids to financial aid,” Randall said.
This story was written by correspondent Mike De Felice.