Students representing PLANIt Sarasota, the local college access network of Sarasota County, travelled to Tallahassee recently to visit with members and staff of the Florida Legislature to push for a statewide Universal FAFSA policy.

Amplifying student voices is central to FCAN’s Student Advocacy Fellowship program, which held its third annual trip to Tallahassee earlier this year. Every year, a small group of students is mentored by several of FCAN’s community coalitions across Florida known as Local College Access Networks (LCANs) to engage with elected officials and champion needed improvements in education policies, such as financial aid.

“In high school, many of my peers were unaware of federal student aid and the same translated to fellow collegiates,” Jailynn Youmas, a USF alumna who grew up in St. Augustine. “I knew that Universal FAFSA would be my focus due to the great lack of awareness for this source of financial aid.

The Universal FAFSA is a completion policy that ensures students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA) or opt out of completing the financial aid application. This step is crucial for students needing financial aid to plan for college. According to the National College Attainment Network, seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to immediately pursue an education beyond high school. This policy would enhance Florida’s SAIL to 60 initiative, which aims to increase the percentage of working-age Floridians with a high-value postsecondary certificate, degree, or training experience to 60% by 2030.

Florida ranks 49th in the nation, with only 33.6% of its seniors completing the FAFSA.

L-R PLANit Sarasota Director Thomas Williams, Jailynn Youmas, House Majority Leader Michael Grant (R – 75), and Giselle Galvan.

“And these are just statistics,” said Giselle Galvan, second-year student at Florida Atlantic University. “What about the underserved kids in the community who want to go to college but don’t have the necessary means?”

Completing the FAFSA comes with many challenges, particularly for first-generation college students. Recently, the FAFSA form was overhauled to make it easier for students to complete and many coalitions through the state are hosting FAFSA information events to help students and families navigate the questions.

Galvan is the first in her family to pursue a higher education. She is currently studying architecture at Florida Atlantic University thanks to a program in Palm Beach County called Path to College, which helps high-achieving, low-income students go to college. They helped her complete the financial aid form.

“One night during my senior year, they hosted a FAFSA Workshop, where a professional helped us complete the application with our parents,” Galvan said.

“I wouldn’t have known about the FAFSA, much less filled it out, costing me thousands of dollars.”

As one of LCANs, PLANit Sarasota mentored the students in a series of group workshops. Youmas and Galvan learned how to articulate their ideas and draw from their personal experiences to talk to elected officials at the state capitol.

“It was amazing to see Jailynn and Giselle grow before my eyes, they had a curiosity about advocacy and an appreciation for the importance of it” said Thomas Williams, PLANit Sarasota’s director. “They came into this with an academic understanding of representative government and left having key legislator’s breakdown how the process works and what is needed for legislative success.”

L-R Jailynn Youmas, Senator Joe Gruters (R – 22), PLANit Sarasota Director Thomas Williams, and Giselle Galvan.

L-R: Jailynn Youmas, Senator Joe Gruters (R – 22), PLANit Sarasota Director Thomas Williams, and Giselle Galvan.

PLANit Sarasota is an alliance for education and career planning motivated by the goal of increasing the percentage of working-age adults in Sarasota County with an education beyond high school to 60% by 2030 so that our community can continue to thrive.

The state of Florida aspires to become the 10th largest economy in the world by 2030, and that requires an agile, educated, and prepared workforce. PLANit Sarasota is committed to helping make that happen and is inspired by the belief that all students deserve to reach their full potential and that a college degree or high-value certificate can transform the lives of students and their families for generations to come.

Only 42.5% of Sarasota County residents between the ages of 25-64 hold an associates degree or higher. Yet 60% of Florida jobs in 2030 will require education beyond high school (Florida College Access Network). These statistics fuel PLANit Sarasota’s network—because the benefits of completing specialized training or college are so immense.

Education after high school profoundly improves the lives of individuals and their families and changes the trajectory of families for generations to come. It keeps our community thriving.

Florida College Access Network plans to continue the student advocacy effort for the 2024-25 Legislative Session.

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