Since its official launch last May, LEAP, the local college access network serving Hillsborough County, has been hard at work fine-tuning strategies to move the needle on its ambitious goal to increase the number of Hillsborough residents with high-quality degrees and credentials.

Recent coverage from the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 offered a thorough look at two strategic initiatives the network is supporting this fall that aim to improve college access and affordability for local students.

The first is an effort to increase the proportion of 12th graders who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Getting more students to complete the FAFSA, which is a leading indicator of college attendance in Florida, is vital to ensuring that students have the educational preparation for the economic opportunities that will lead to good-paying jobs in the future.

“The FAFSAs are complicated, especially if your family speaks English as a second language or if the parents have never filled one out before,” said Marlene Spalten, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, the backbone organization for LEAP, in a Tampa Bay Times article. “There are so many students who could qualify for both college and aid and they never go because they don’t fill out the form.”

During the 2015-16 school year, only 38% of Hillsborough County’s 12th graders completed the FAFSA from January 1 to July 1. By virtue of not completing the form, Florida CAN estimates show that Hillsborough high school graduates leave behind approximately $9 million in Pell Grants each year. LEAP members have formed a committee that meets regularly to assess where strategies, resources and partnerships can best be utilized to help ensure more students access the funds they need to pay for college.

The second initiative, FUSE, is a partnership between Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida. FUSE will guarantee admission to USF for associate’s degree earners from HCC who meet certain criteria.

“The FUSE brand is representing the fusing of our institutional resources. We’re giving up our institutional egos for a greater ecosystem of higher education, because we are bonded by the goal of greater student success,” said Dr. Paul Nagy, special assistant to the president for strategic planning at HCC, in a Bay News 9 “In Depth” segment.

Students who participate in the FUSE program must earn their associate’s degree within three years and graduate with a minimum GPA of 2.0 to be admitted into one of eleven select degree programs at USF.

For each of the eleven degree tracks available, students are given guidance on which courses to take and what order to take them in from enrollment at HCC to graduation at USF. The structured degree pathways help students complete their associate’s degree and baccalaureate degree’s on time. Additionally, these degree tracks are aligned to in-demand fields with jobs available in the Tampa Bay area, increasing the chances for students to secure a job in their field after graduation.

Beyond these two initiatives, LEAP’s other efforts include an asset mapping project to identify community programs and resources that help students to and through postsecondary education and strategic communications to build awareness and community support.

To learn more about LEAP, read the full Tampa Bay Times article here, or watch this interview segment recently broadcast on Bay News 9. For more information on LEAP, or visit


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