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MCAN Executive Director Ryan Fewins-Bliss testifies in favor of FAFSA legislation

Image of Michigan Senate Committee in session.

Lansing, Mich. — Earlier today, MCAN Executive Director Ryan Fewins-Bliss testified in front of the Michigan Senate Committee on Education in support of Senate Bill 463, which would establish FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement for Michigan students. Below are his prepared remarks:

"Good afternoon, Chair Polehanki, Vice Chairs Geiss and Damoose, and members of the committee. Thank you for allowing me to testify today – especially by Zoom since I’m out of state at the moment.

"I’m Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director at Michigan College Access Network. We are known as MCAN. As you know, we are a statewide nonprofit organization focused on getting more students into and through college – especially first-generation college-going students, students of color, and low-income students. We spend our days trying to get our state to the Sixty by 30 attainment goal you have affirmed since 2019. We celebrate the introduction of SB 463 and thank the committee for digging into the issue.

"You should have in front of you a packet of information about state and district data to help you as you think about this issue. It’s always an honor to sit before you to tell you about things you can do to make our state a better place. I’m a small-town kid from Northern Michigan from a solidly middle-class family. When it was time to go to college, my mom completed my FAFSA form and I was able to get some local, state, and federal financial aid. It was really easy for me. She did it every year for four years. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that it wasn’t so easy for everyone.

"The latest college completion data comes from Michigan’s high school class of 2016. If you take 100 9th graders from this class, only 80 graduate high school in four years. Of those, 54 enroll in postsecondary education within a year of graduation. Only 30 of those students stay enrolled from the first year to the second year. And just 17 actually graduate with a certificate or degree within six years. This will not get us to Sixty by 30 and will not help grow Michigan’s economy. College is as important now as it ever has been.

"I’m in Dallas this week for the National College Attainment Network Conference. Yesterday, a community college president shared some data that showed the likelihood of a student getting a credential if they don’t enroll immediately after high school is just 1%, so we can see the transition after high school graduation is critical. We can boost the number of students entering college immediately – meaning they are more likely to complete – through a universal FAFSA policy. High school seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to immediately enroll in college. For students with low socioeconomic status, FAFSA completion is associated with a 127% increase in immediate college enrollment.

"So, college is critical to Michigan’s economy. Immediately enrolling in college makes students tremendously more likely to get a certificate or degree in their lifetime. Completing the FAFSA is dramatically connected to immediate enrollment. You can see why getting more students to complete the FAFSA is critical.

"I’ve heard feedback as we’ve worked with partners across the state on building a well-designed universal FAFSA policy that not all students are college bound, so it’s a waste of time and energy to force them to submit the FAFSA. This isn’t about sending all students to college, but it is about sending more Michigan students to college. If we don’t, we import talent from other states and other countries while our Michigan students are left behind.

"FAFSA is actually about information. It doesn’t force anyone to go to college. It provides facts that help students and families make choices. When you buy a car, you want to know the cost, right? But you also need to know if there are incentives or promotions that would make the car more affordable. Maybe you find out you can now afford a car that you originally had put outside your price range. If you hadn’t gotten the entirety of the information available, you may have made a different decision. FAFSA provides that information for postsecondary education. And unlike buying a car, getting an education is transformative for a lifetime.

"When understanding how to best help kids, the research is pretty consistent over time. It won’t surprise you, but it all boils down to more caring adults providing good advice and support. Schools are uniquely positioned to be, and in fact already are, serving as caring adults providing good advice to kids. This is why we know that the best way to increase FAFSA completion in Michigan – and get more students into college and produce more talent for employers – is to connect FAFSA submission to the place that has the most caring adults supporting students: their high schools.

"Our Michigan students from the high school class of 2022 left more than $93 million unclaimed in federal Pell grants. This is tax money that Michigan residents have paid to Washington, D.C. that could return for the benefit of our students, families, and communities. Michigan’s FAFSA completion rate has been on the downward trend since peaking in 2018. This is in spite of an increase in outreach, grant funds, and incentives for schools and communities to support FAFSA submission. In your packets, you’ll find a handout that tells you where your FAFSA completion rates are at your high schools and an aggregate rate in your senate district as of June 30, 2023. We are on the right track for this year as compared to last year. We are more than 2% ahead of this time in 2022, something we are attributing to the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. That’s certainly something to celebrate, but after several years of decreasing data, this small increase still has us almost 10 percentage points below that peak in 2018 and it isn’t enough to get the state to Sixty by 30. We need dramatic action and current strategies aren’t working.

"The best way to ensure that all students get support and then are able to make fully-informed decisions about their future is to connect FAFSA submission to high school graduation. This is not a new or experimental policy. Twelve states have implemented by law or policy that students complete the FAFSA in order to graduate. It works. And in Michigan, the legislature approved PA88 last year that requires all schools to provide postsecondary information to all students that is regionally relevant. Michigan Department of Education, the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, and MCAN worked creatively to implement that law. So, we’re telling all students about their opportunities post-graduation. Pairing that with information about affordability give students and families the full picture of their options. Students and families deserve choice. They deserve a chance to make a decision based on all the information available, not just a slice of it.

"When I talk about choice, I’m not necessarily talking about the choice between MSU and U of M. The FAFSA unlocks financial aid at 160 of Michigan’s universities, community colleges, tribal colleges, and skilled trade programs. Many students who are interested in training that isn’t a four-year degree can benefit significantly from FAFSA submission – especially since these programs are often still quite expensive. This policy will help more students than meets the eye.

"I know you probably have heard or will hear some concerns about this legislation. One of the concerns is the potential to harm graduation rates. There is no evidence in any other state that graduation rates decreased due to this policy. The legislation has been expertly crafted to allow for schools to opt a student out if this is their only barrier to graduating high school. It helps no one to have fewer students graduate or for high schools’ graduation rates to drop. MCAN would not support policy that did either of those things.

"Another concern I’ve heard is around capacity of schools to do this work. I think this is a reasonable concern. We encourage you to include funds to support this policy in the FY25 school aid budget. We do believe that schools need some support to implement this policy. We also believe, however, that this shouldn’t stop us from making good policy. It would be disingenuous to tell you that this legislation won’t require extra effort by school staff. Of course it does. But how do we expect better outcomes without putting in additional effort? The status quo in this work is failing us. We need to do something different. Universal FAFSA is our chance to do that and we should support schools in taking on that work.

"You and your colleagues have put in the additional effort at your level. You have done a tremendous job in recent years in investing in state financial aid programs. Michigan rose from the bottom of the rankings almost overnight as you saw that college affordability was a place for us to improve. Now that the state is subsidizing many students’ education, it’s critical that we use those funds for that purpose. FAFSA is the key to unlocking state and federal financial aid.

"Another concern we’ve heard is about how this policy will affect students with disabilities, undocumented students, students who have experienced foster care, and other students with vulnerable demographics. Again, MCAN would never support a policy that would hurt the very students our mission calls us to serve. The data from the states that have implemented this legislation shows that there are incredible gains in FAFSA completion by these populations who are often the groups the benefit most from federal and state aid. This policy helps these students, not hurts them. There are generous opt-out options within the legislation to allow families or schools to protect children as they see fit. But if we don’t say that every student deserves the chance to get this important information, who gets to choose the children that do get it? And what do those kids look like? Don’t we all want to know every single child is getting the attention about the future that they deserve? That’s my expectation for my kids. I bet it’s yours as well. It has to be the expectation for ALL kids. Let’s not be the adults who decide on the behalf of students that they don’t want these opportunities without giving them the chance to choose. We shouldn’t say we’re protecting the most vulnerable children in need by not giving them the same information and support that other kids are getting. That’s oppression disguised in equity wrapping paper.

"I’ll end with a story from one of our college advisers, an AmeriCorps member we’ve placed in a high school in a Macomb County school district to help with college-going activities. This is their story:

"'I had a student earlier this year who was adamant that she would not qualify for federal aid and that there was no point in doing the FAFSA or completing college applications since she did not want to go into debt and she knew her parents would not help her. She believed her parents made too much. She was hesitant. She avoided me in the halls. She would not come down when I requested her to come to my office. She despised conversations regarding this topic. I wanted to help, but there was only so much I could do. I told her that if she did not feel comfortable or did not want to speak of this matter further, that’s okay - but only after I explain how and why FAFSA works. It got through to her. The persistence PAID OFF. She finally was ready to start a college application and start her FAFSA. Her body expression changed, she was smiling and actually eager to meet with me. The possibility of even having some aid available was more than enough for her to try. We met and I helped her submit her FAFSA, and she ended up being eligible for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. She then applied to Northern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. She was ecstatic. She was so hopeful and grateful. She told me that I changed her life. I thought that was a bit dramatic, but in a sense, I think I did alter her plans a little.'

"This is what this legislation can help us do for all students. And when you make it law, MCAN will go immediately into action to help every school district implement this with every resource we can muster. We won’t leave them hanging.

"As you listen to testimony today and talk to people within your district, you will hear many opinions. I encourage you to listen to the voices of those that speak for the students, not for the adults. Thank you."

Click here to view the entire committee meeting. Ryan Fewins-Bliss' testimony begins at 26:05.

MCAN Executive Director Ryan Fewins-Bliss testified in front of the Michigan Senate Committee on Education in support of Senate Bill 463, which would establish FAFSA completion as a high school graduation requirement.