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Guest View | Eric Zarnikow: State offers college funding help
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Guest View | Eric Zarnikow: State offers college funding help

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It’s understandably difficult to focus right now on plans for college or training after high school. In the face of a global pandemic, education itself has been upended over the last seven months. And it is especially difficult for students who are low income, and for students of color, whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Our message to students and families is this: Don’t give up on your educational goals and plans — there are more resources to help you than you might have thought. October’s College Changes Everything (CCE) Month is all about getting you the support you deserve, including all the financial aid for college for which you are eligible.

Now in its fifth year, the CCE fall campaign is designed to offer all Illinois students and families free statewide assistance with college planning and the financial aid process. Events include college application and financial aid workshops hosted by high schools, and virtual events hosted by ISAC and our partners. The ISACorps, ISAC’s group of near-peer mentors trained to help families navigate the college-going process, offer assistance via phone, videoconferencing, email and text. Additional resources include short videos, a text messaging app, and other web tools.

Every young person in Illinois deserves to be able to look forward to a future where they can pursue their dreams — a chance to not just survive, but thrive. A college degree or a high-quality postsecondary credential does in fact make a difference: more career opportunities, higher salaries, and even better health.

Helping to ensure a brighter future for all Illinoisans is one of the goals behind the state’s FAFSA mandate. Implemented for the first time this year, it requires public high school seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or if they are ineligible for federal aid, the Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid, as a prerequisite to receiving a high school diploma. Students who might otherwise not be aware of resources available to help them afford college will learn more about them. And that may help more students decide to attempt college or training after high school — opening up many more opportunities to define and advance their goals.

Illinois has also improved access to postsecondary education for more students. The Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid provides a pathway to Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants for some undocumented students, and for transgender students who may be ineligible for federal student aid because they did not register for selective service. While most students will continue to complete the FAFSA in order to determine their eligibility for federal and state financial aid, the Alternative Application provides new opportunities for students who might not otherwise have been eligible to receive needed grant funding for college.

There is hope and possibility and opportunity on the other side of this. Stay on the path to meet your educational goals and take advantage of the support that is there to help you every step of the way.

Eric Zarnikow is the executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

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