October is the season of changing leaves, baseball playoffs and…the first opportunity to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It’s an annual milestone in the college application cycle and especially important now since the pandemic has left many Hoosiers in a cash crunch. Fortunately, free money is available for students and families and it’s essential to spread the word so more Hoosiers can fund ongoing education and reduce student loan debt.

The state of Indiana has made higher education a longtime budget priority and more than $350 million in state financial aid is now available to Hoosier students. But, the only pathway to those funds starts by completing the FAFSA.

Our organization – INvestEd – exists in part to help students and families complete the FAFSA and we encourage Hoosiers to ignore the chatter about the application being too complex and confusing to complete. We are here to help and if there was ever a year when completing this application was more important than another, this is probably that time.

That’s because career opportunities in the post-COVID-19 economy will rely even more on people having an education beyond high school. Numerous research reports confirm employment across our state will increasingly require postsecondary education. It’s a career essential in high-growth, high-wage fields.

In its 2020 strategic plan – “Reaching Higher in a State of Change” ¬– the Indiana Commission for Higher Education put it this way, “For individuals to achieve any measure of economic security or success in today’s economy, education beyond high school is critical. Ninety-nine percent of jobs created since the Great Recession went to workers with at least some college. Looking to the future, continual and lifelong learning will only grow in importance for individuals and our state’s economic prosperity.”

We agree and that’s why we collaborate with the Commission to provide free and transparent financial aid literacy resources to more than 10,000 individuals Hoosiers and thousands of families around the state every year. The Indiana General Assembly had the foresight to form our non-profit 40 years ago and our singular focus is to make postsecondary education more accessible and approachable for all Hoosier students and families.

As the economy rebounds from the toll of COVID-19, those with high-quality certificates and two- and four- year college degrees will be better positioned. In fact, a report on the recovery from the 2008 recession showed half of the jobs that came back as of 2015 were full-time jobs that paid $53,000 or more with benefits, and nearly all of those jobs went to those with education beyond high school. Today, economists project that unskilled jobs – lost during the crisis – will be some of the last to come back.

For families who need help completing the form, INvestEd is here and we want you to know the FAFSA is a powerful tool in bringing greater equity to education and concerns about how to file should never be an issue for any Hoosier. According to research from the National College Attainment Network, students from the lowest socioeconomic quintile who complete a FAFSA are 127% more likely to be enrolled in the semester following high school graduation than their peers without a completed FAFSA.

Hoosier students and families have a great opportunity to secure financial aid for a brighter future. That journey starts by filling out the FAFSA and we are here to help. Let’s make sure these tumultuous and distracting times don’t result in our friends and neighbors leaving free money for education on the table.

Joe Wood is the president and CEO of INvestEd, a nonprofit formed by the Indiana General Assembly in 1980, with a mission to provide parents and students with the tools needed to put education beyond high school within reach.

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