Guest Commentary: FAFSA a gateway to opportunity for every student in Rhode Island

Seventy percent of jobs in Rhode Island require more training and education than a high school diploma alone, yet only 45 percent of Rhode Islanders have any type of college degree.

As the state’s education commissioners, we’re working together across elementary, secondary, and higher education, and with our partners in industry, to grow the number of Rhode Islanders with the education and training they need to get a good job. That means building career pathways early, aligning classrooms to the needs of our economy, and helping to break down barriers that stand between students and higher education.

The cost of college is one of those barriers. Thankfully, our students have help available when it comes to paying for school.

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA) is the first step in qualifying for money to pay for college and career training programs.

Nationally, 85 percent of students are eligible for federal financial aid for college, but only 45 percent of high school seniors actually complete the FAFSA before high school graduation. And we know that financial aid is especially key to closing equity gaps for first-generation and low-income students, and students of color.

The truth is, it’s critical that every student fill out the FAFSA, regardless of what type of institution or program they’re interested in, regardless of immigration status, income, or age — even if they’re not sure yet where, or if, they’ll enroll.

Filling out the FAFSA is like taking out an insurance policy on your future. You may not know what the future holds, but by completing the FAFSA, you’ll be prepared, have more options, and approach decisions about your postsecondary education with a clear picture of what you can afford.

Rhode Island is currently rated ninth in the country for the percent of high school seniors who have completed the FAFSA, according to the National College Action Network. That’s pretty fantastic! But if we’re going to meet Governor Raimondo’s ambitious goal to raise the number of Rhode Islanders with postsecondary credentials from 45 to 70 percent by the year 2025, we’re going to have to keep pushing.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has declared the month of February “FAFSA Frenzy February” to encourage all students to recognize the importance of applying for federal aid. During her tenure, the governor has emphasized the importance of higher education as a pathway to the middle class for Rhode Islanders, and a key component of the state’s workforce and economic development strategies.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), where the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship has ensured that all Rhode Islanders coming right out of high school are eligible to enroll in community college tuition-free for two years. But — you guessed it — students must first complete the FAFSA in order to qualify for the Promise Scholarship.

If you, your child, or a student you know and love is planning to pursue higher education — be it at a two-year community college, a four-year college or university (whether public or private), or a career training program — fill out the FAFSA now.

The FAFSA is a gateway to opportunity for every student. Higher education is a gateway to better jobs. And a prepared workforce will be the gateway to a stronger Rhode Island.

To learn more and to fill out the FAFSA form, visit

Brenda Dann-Messier is the Rhode Island commissioner of postsecondary education, and Ken Wagner is the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

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