No matter your race, faith, political party or gender, there is one thing we can all agree on: education is the key to greater opportunity and a better life. Especially during this difficult time in our history, we all need to come together to support what we know works to change lives.

In 2019, Edgecombe County Schools ranked at the very bottom of the Public School Forum’s Roadmap of Need — 100 out of the 100 North Carolina counties — in terms of their four indicators: education, health care, economic development and public safety.

The statistics say because our students were born into these circumstances they will not graduate college. But we are seeing students overcome the odds every day because of education. Students like Cesilia Lewis, who graduated from Edgecombe Early College High School this year. The first in her family to ever go to college, Cesilia is attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall and is not taking out any student loans.

Cesilia says none of that would have been possible if she had not filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. It was the first crucial step in connecting her with scholarships and federal aid.

Unfortunately, too many of our high school seniors and their families are not filling out the FAFSA to find the scholarships and financial aid to make college free or much more affordable. In fact, in 2019, more than 39,000 North Carolina high school seniors did not submit a FAFSA, leaving an estimated $89 million on the table in federal support they could have used to go to continue their education beyond high school.

That’s why so many partners from all across the state are working together to launch a special FAFSA Frenzy NC campaign the entire month of June. All month long, we are teaming up to spread the word to encourage students and families to file the FAFSA and pursue a high quality degree or credential this fall.

According to a 2020 report by Education Strategy Group (ESG), 90% of FAFSA completers attend college directly after high school, compared to just 55% of students who don’t complete the FAFSA. FAFSA completers are also more likely to persist in their coursework and obtain a degree, ultimately earning far higher wages over the course of their lifetime.

As North Carolina’s economy grows, the vast majority of new jobs will require education beyond a high school diploma, yet fewer than half of North Carolinians ages 25-44 have a high quality credential or college degree. North Carolinians from economically disadvantaged backgrounds earn far fewer postsecondary credentials than students with greater economic stability -- with black, Hispanic and native residents also consistently falling below the state average.

So far this year, only half of North Carolina high school seniors have filed their FAFSA. This is significantly behind our neighbor, Tennessee, where more than 75% of students have already completed their FAFSA. We are deeply concerned by these numbers because we know if students don’t file the FAFSA, they are less likely to enroll and attend college.

myFutureNC is on a mission to close the educational attainment gap in North Carolina and making our state First in FAFSA completion is a critical component of our mission. Now is the time to come together to help our students succeed and ensure we reach our goal of 2 million North Carolinians earning a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030.

Check out FAFSAFrenzyNC.com and join us in encouraging high school graduates and their families in your school, your community, and your church to fill out the FAFSA as the first step to free or affordable college.

N.C. Sen. Deanna Ballard represents District 45: Alleghany, Ashe, Surry, Watauga and Wilkes Counties. Pastor and N.C. Rep. James Gailliard represents District 25, Nash County. Cecilia Holden is the CEO of myFutureNC. Matt Bristow-Smith is the principal of Edgecombe Early College High School and the North Carolina Principal of the Year.

FAFSA Frenzy NC is a partnership between myFutureNC, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the State Board of Education, the Community College System, the University of North Carolina System, North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, the College Foundation of North Carolina -- NCSEAA/CFI and other key stakeholder associations and partners.

For more information about this month’s FAFSA Frenzy campaign, please visit, FAFSAFrenzyNC.com

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