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### Exploring Strategies to Enhance College Financial Aid Applications

Pennsylvania lawmakers are advocating for increased opportunities to assist aspiring college students in securing the necessary funds to address the high costs of tuition. The House Democratic Policy Committee convened to explore ways to boost the submission rates of federal aid forms statewide. Rep. Melissa Cerrato, D-Horsham, the organizer of the hearing, highlighted that more than $24 billion in federal and state loans, grants, and other financial aid remains unclaimed annually.

The FAFSA, a crucial federal application for student aid eligibility, serves as a prerequisite for most grants, scholarships, and other forms of assistance. Despite the recent overhaul of the application process in line with the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, aimed at simplification, students still encounter numerous challenges in making college financially feasible.

Cerrato emphasized the importance of ensuring that students are adequately supported in their pursuit of higher education. Counselor Patrick Brett from North Penn High School shared testimony revealing the multitude of obstacles his students face, ranging from technical issues like broken links and language barriers to limited internet access and complexities within the form. Many families opt out of completing the form under the misconception that they do not qualify for aid based on their income.

In cases where families are determined to seek assistance, they often turn to their school districts for help. However, the shortage of counselors poses a significant barrier, with insufficient staffing levels unable to meet the demands of the state’s college-bound students. Brett, serving as the sole “future plans” counselor for a school with over 3,000 students, expressed his inability to individually guide each graduating senior through their college plans or navigate the intricate process of assessing families’ financial details for the form.

He proposed integrating a simulated FAFSA exercise into the state’s newly mandated personal finance curriculum. This initiative aims not only to familiarize students with forms like the FAFSA but also to equip them with the necessary financial skills to navigate the substantial costs associated with higher education.

During the hearing, participants, including testifiers and legislators, reflected on the enduring burden of student loans, with some noting the passage of several decades since their own college experiences. Questions were raised about the value of pursuing a college education amidst escalating tuition fees and the perceived diminishing relevance of degrees to the practical demands of the workforce.

Rep. Dan Williams, D-Thorndale, sought insights from Diona Brown, the director of school services for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, on whether a college education remains a viable option for students. Brown emphasized that the decision to pursue higher education should be tailored to each family’s circumstances, considering various factors beyond just earning potential. She clarified that her organization’s mission is not to promote college attendance but to facilitate affordable access to higher education for Pennsylvania students by offering comprehensive information sessions and support to families navigating the FAFSA process.

In a separate legislative development, the Senate has passed a bill mandating [ppp1]. This bill is currently pending further action in the House.