Niles High School wins FAFSA challenge

NILES — Niles High School has been recognized as the overall winner in the Michigan College Access Network’s College Cash Campaign Supporting the Governor’s FAFSA Challenge.

The challenge from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sought to educate students on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and to encourage more Michigan high school seniors to apply for the aid as they create their post-high school plans. The Niles High School has been awarded a $10,000 cash prize in addition to their winning status.

“The FAFSA program helps so many of our students pay for college or trade school,” said Molly Brawley, principal at Niles High School. “We couldn’t be prouder of our student body for staying on top of their applications and helping us receive such a high honor.”

Taylor Nelson, college advisor at Niles High School, helped kick off the program to this year’s graduating seniors back in October when FAFSA applications opened.

“I really wanted to make sure we did see an increase with FAFSA [applications]. It was a goal before the governor’s challenge was initiated,” Nelson said.

Applications for FAFSA had been a declining trend for some time, according to Nelson. The challenge just added an extra incentive for the school to encourage applications and educate students on the process.

Nelson wanted to help ensure that students who were still deciding on their post-high school plans were able to have access to the means to fulfill potential plans. If students even expressed the slightest interest in attending college or a trade school after high school, Nelson and the staff worked with students to help them understand and submit their FAFSA forms.

“You would rather have the money and not need to use it than decide that it’s something you want to do and not have the financial assistance,” Nelson said.

As Nelson and the staff went to classrooms to speak about the FAFSA applications, she found staff were going to have to start at the beginning.

“A lot of our students are first-generation [college] students,” Nelson said. “They don’t know what FAFSA is, what it can do for you, things like that. As early as Oct. 1, we were already in English 12 classrooms explaining to students what it is and that they’re going to hear a lot about it.”

Even after thee school went remote due to COVID-19 precautions and mandates, Nelson is still working with students virtually to guide them through planning their post-secondary lives.

“They come in pretty consistently, still virtually, with financial aid offers from their schools,” Nelson said. “The process doesn’t end once they submit. They’re now starting to bring in whatever financial aid package they received from their school, and we are breaking down what that means [for them].”

Nelson and the staff at Niles High School will continue to help seniors, and their parents, understand what the financial aid options are as students make plans for the fall.

“The class of 2020 has always gone above and beyond, and we’re not surprised that they stepped up to the challenge,” Brawley said. “While our students continue to work hard on their studies from home, we are thrilled to share this win with them.”

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