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As Tampa Bay Students Head to College, Scholarships Await

More than $30,000 in FAFSA Completion Scholarships Awarded to Hillsborough, PInellas Students

As students say goodbye to high school this week and the idea of being “done” begins to sink in, the excitement of what lies ahead will inevitably mix with the practical: “meeting” roommates online; buying sheets and a mini-fridge for a dorm room; memorizing a schedule; anticipating the taste of unprecedented freedom.

And soon, facing the reality of paying for it all.

For two dozen students across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, however, the tuition bill will be a little lighter thanks to the “FAFSA Completion Scholarships” program.

The program – developed by the LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network in 2017 – aims to encourage Tampa Bay graduating seniors to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students who completed their FAFSA early (by March 31) were eligible to be placed into a drawing for scholarships of up to $2,000 from three Tampa Bay area colleges (and LEAP partners) – the University of TampaHillsborough Community College and St. Petersburg College.

Student awarded scholarship
Caleb Gordon, Pinellas Park High School, aspires to be an electrical engineer. He was awarded an St. Petersburg College FAFSA completion scholarship.

Given the essential role school guidance counselors play in educating students about the FAFSA, representatives from LEAP partners Hillsborough County Schools and Pinellas County Schools selected the winners at special county-wide meetings for their counselors last month.

“Counselors help educate students and families about what FAFSA is, why it is important, where to apply, and the timeline for completion,” said Brooke Pair, School Counselor-Financial Aid for Pinellas County Schools.

That’s in addition to hosting special completion events, providing direct assistance in filling out the form and connecting families with community resources, Pair said.

The emphasis on the FAFSA is for good reason – the information submitted on the form determines if students qualify for federal grants (money that doesn’t have to be paid back), loans or work study. Completing the application is also often required to receive local financial aid packages or college scholarships.

Despite its importance, fewer than 50 percent of Florida’s public school students complete the form each year. According to the Florida College Access Network, it’s estimated that Florida high school graduates leave over $100 million in Pell Grants on the table every year simply because they do not complete the application.

“Fill out the FAFSA before anything else,” said Chuck Tiernan, director of the LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network. “That’s the message we want everyone to hear.”

“We’re fortunate to have partners in our area who are invested in our students and who are working to bring attention to this important step on the road to college.”

Hillsborough county school counselors celebrate their students who were selected for scholarships from SPC or HCC.
School counselors from Pinellas county gathered for the SPC and UT scholarship drawings.

For help completing the FAFSA, families can review the online FAFSA resources available through LEAP. Information about other financial aid opportunities is also available.

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