Column: Financial aid key to college education, better life

It’s back to college in the Buckeye State.

In the next several weeks, more than 300,000 degree-seekers will be entering or returning to school at one of Ohio’s 14 public universities.

College-level learning is the key to economic opportunity and prosperity for individuals and the state as well as to a strong democracy. It is one of the soundest investments Ohioans can make for their future.

The return on investment in public higher education is substantial and often life-changing: higher income, more job opportunities, lower risk of unemployment, less reliance on public assistance programs, greater likelihood of voting and volunteering, better health and a longer life.

One of the many reasons for excitement and optimism as the new academic year begins is recent action in the Ohio Statehouse and governor’s office to increase the need-based financial aid available for students at Ohio’s public universities.

The primary source of financial aid for at-risk students is the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, which provides grant money to Ohio residents who demonstrate the highest levels of financial need. More than 46,000 students at public universities in Ohio receive OCOG aid.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, need-based financial aid in Ohio was drastically reduced by 50 percent, or about $400 per student. The additional OCOG funds in the new state budget bill are a welcome step in the right direction toward restoring pre-Recession-era funds for OCOG.

House Bill 166, the state’s FY 2020-2021 operating budget, appropriates more than $47 million in additional state funds for need-based student financial aid. This will help make it possible for more Ohioans, especially those from low-income families, to realize their higher education dreams.

OCOG funding increases from $100.9 million in FY 2019 to $122.3 million in FY 2020, then to $148.2 million in FY 2021. That represents an increase of 21.2 percent in each of the next two fiscal years.

Individual per-student OCOG awards increase from $1,500 (per full-time students on the main campus of a public university) to $2,000 per student in FY 2000, then from $2,000 to $2,500 per student in the following year.

Ohioans should be grateful to Gov. Mike DeWine, Senate President Larry Obhof and House Speaker Larry Householder for their leadership in securing the additional $47 million in the state budget bill to fund larger OCOG grants.

As welcome as the new OCOG dollars are, securing financial aid starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is a strong indicator of whether a high school senior will attend college and often is used to determine eligibility for state or federal grants.

Unfortunately, according to a Brookings Institute report, as many as 1 in 7 students does not complete the FAFSA form. That’s like saying, “No thank you, I don’t need hundreds of additional dollars of student financial aid.” How many of us can afford to do that?

The national FAFSA completion rate is 61 percent, while the rate in Ohio is 66.6 percent. That means one of every three graduating Ohio high school seniors eligible for financial aid failed to complete the FASFA.

In Ohio, on average, more than $3,583 is left on the table for each financial aid-eligible high school graduate who does not complete the FAFSA. Students who fail to complete the FAFSA are in effect denying themselves the opportunity to receive almost any financial aid to help fund a high-quality public university education.

Injecting more than $47 million in additional financial aid funds, Ohio’s elected state leaders have sent a clear message about the importance of increasing the number of Ohioans with postsecondary education credentials.

I urge all Ohioans thinking about pursuing a public university degree in Ohio to complete a FAFSA form sooner rather than later. Be sure to collect your share of OCOG funds — and good luck at whichever public university you choose to call home.

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Bruce Johnson is president of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, a voluntary educational association of Ohio’s 14 public universities.