Marecki: FAFSA changes increase college accessibility

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a free form that unlocks access to federal grants, work-study funds, and loans, as well as state and school aid, is a critically important tool for Michigan students who are planning to enroll in college this fall.

FAFSA has been making headlines this year, and not necessarily in a positive way. The form has been revamped, under an initiative called Better FAFSA by Federal Student Aid. The overhauled version of the FAFSA is designed to achieve a number of improvements and streamlined features, including a “significant increase in the number of students eligible to receive a Pell Grant.”

In Michigan, nearly 20,000 more students could qualify for the Pell Grant and eligible students could receive up to $27,500 for college through a new Michigan scholarship, just by filling out the FAFSA form. The number of questions has also decreased from more than 100 to under 20. Unfortunately, the rollout of the new form has been plagued with issues, including a months-long delay that has contributed to a 56% decrease in national submissions compared to 2023.

Here’s the good news, however: Despite these hiccups, the FAFSA changes are a positive and much needed update.

With these changes and Michigan’s transformative $24.3 billion school budget signed in 2023, college has the potential to be more accessible and affordable than ever for Michigan graduates.

Despite the delays and frustrations caused by the changes in the form, students and their support system should not get discouraged. They should be keenly focused on completing the FAFSA now and reviewing their submission summary carefully for any errors. We know that high school seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to immediately enroll in post-secondary education. Organizations like the National College Attainment Network have been sounding the alarm, urging students, families, schools, and support organizations to prioritize filling out the FAFSA now, otherwise we could be facing a steep decline in post-secondary enrollment this fall.

At Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS), we are very familiar with the challenges facing today’s students as they work their way through the financial aid process. DRDFS works closely with hundreds of young people across Metro Detroit, we have seen firsthand that with targeted support, including helping students fill out the FAFSA, our students’ dreams of attending college become a reality with the financial aid they unlock after completing the form.

With state investments, there is a 217% increase in financial aid available for state students, according to the Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential (MiLEAP). This extraordinary number supports the idea that college has the potential to be the most affordable it has been in recent history. It also reinforces the vital importance of making sure that students overcome the logistical hurdles and fill out the FAFSA.

The impact of that support can be profound. As of March 2024, over 90% of DRDFS seniors have completed the FAFSA with the help of one-on-one support from our coaches, compared to just over 30% of all seniors nationally. Michigan students are counting on us all to help them navigate the process as they prepare for life after high school.

Jill Marecki is the Next Level Scholars Program Director at Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars.

Originally published in The Detroit News, April 18, 2024

Bridge to Possibilities

AT&T Michigan President David Lewis set to headline DRDFS 11th Annual Celebration Luncheon


AT&T Michigan President David C. Lewis, Sr. is no stranger to overcoming adversity and making the most of his opportunities. The trailblazing executive has spoken candidly and compellingly about his own story and the transformative power of education and mentorship – as well as the combination of personal initiative and family and community support – that has enabled him to overcome challenges and achieve personal and professional success.

All of which makes him an extraordinary role model for the young people who are a part of the Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars program – and why it’s such a thrill to have David join the DRDFS team as the keynote speaker for our 11th Annual Celebration Luncheon on March 6, 2024. The event, which will take place at the University of Detroit Mercy, celebrates the more than 100 students in the Next Level Scholars (NLS) Class of 2024 as they graduate from high school and embark on the next step of their educational journey.

David’s address to the students will illuminate how the DRDFS mission connects to his own journey. He will expand on the importance of reaching back while moving forward – and how DRDFS scholars have the opportunity and responsibility to serve as positive examples and leaders for their peers, not just tomorrow, but right now. David plans to share his own inspiring story of success despite the challenges of growing up in a single-parent household in a tough neighborhood, connecting with NLS students about what it takes to overcome similar challenges. All punctuated by inspiring advice from the works of influential black leaders like Cornel West and W.E.B. Du Bois who have been impactful in his own life.

David will also share some of the ways that AT&T is engaged in important work that complements DRDFS initiatives, most notably by bridging the digital divide and connecting communities. That divide – the lack of access to technology and reliable high-speed internet – keeps millions of Americans from having the information they need to thrive. AT&T is making strong efforts to improve access and affordability by expanding its networks and providing more low-cost solutions. These initiatives, along with driving adoption by ensuring digital access for all, are not just admirable, they are essential. Like DRDFS, AT&T’s work empowers young people and elevates not just individuals, but families and communities along the way. For AT&T, connectivity is a bridge to possibility, and the company has stood behind those words through its national commitment to help address the digital divide across the country and in Michigan.

Education. Access. Opportunity. These are key themes in David’s story and in his message that will resonate with every DRDFS student. Through DRDFS and its NLS program, hundreds of students every year across Southeast Michigan have a potentially life-changing opportunity to earn a post-secondary credential and achieve their own goals. The 2024 luncheon event is not just a celebration of that opportunity, but of an important milestone in their own educational journeys. Together, they are crossing a bridge to a future filled with limitless possibilities.

To Boost Post-Secondary Outcomes, Invest in Stronger Pipelines

Does Michigan value education? For the success of our state, one would hope so, but for years we have heard that the value of a higher education has been called
into question. Most recently, Glengariff Group’s survey for the Detroit Regional Chamber reported that only 25% of parents viewed a college education as essential for success.

Regardless of public opinion, the data demonstrates that there is no more significant mechanism for social mobility than a college credential. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) estimates that, by 2031, 72% of jobs will require a post-secondary qualification.

To become a top ten state, we know that Michigan needs more students to pursue and complete post-secondary programs. Rather than focus on the perceived value of a college degree, why not shift our attention to the steps required to make post-secondary success a reality for more students?

Competing Narratives

Many economic, social and political factors shape the public’s opinion of higher education. However, one persistent challenge that complicates the issue is inconsistent messaging.

As their student progresses through school, families receive a range of conflicting advice. Parents are told that four-year institutions are the only viable path to success, only to turn around and hear that students seeking high-paying positions should concentrate on training for a trade.

The truth is that none of these messages need to compete. Skills-based certificates and four-year degrees are both valuable post-secondary credentials. Our role as advocates is to ensure that all students have the information, opportunities, support and resources to attain the qualifications necessary to build rewarding and sustainable careers.

It’s easy to lose sight of the progress that has been made in fostering K-12 to higher education pipelines. But aligning those efforts — and the messages they champion — has never been more critical. Students across our state, in every community, need all of us to work together so that they can understand their options, create a realistic pathway to a good paying career and thrive as they pursue post-secondary attainment.

If we do this, these narratives can be blended into one cohesive plan—a prosperous future where we put students’ interests, needs and desires first and help them find the post-secondary pathway that works for them.

Personal Connections

While broader perception trends provide some insight into the educational landscape, they do not represent the whole picture. Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) has long recognized that it is the personal connections and experiences that puts the value in perspective for students.

Campus visits, workshops and college fairs help students imagine themselves at a post-secondary institution — be it two-year, four-year or technical. As the overwhelming majority of students DRDFS works with will be the first in their family to graduate from a post-secondary institution, these types of experiences are particularly impactful.

The results are conclusive. 100% of DRDFS participants graduate high school on time. 87% go on to enroll in post-secondary education within 12 months, against a 49% national average for students from low-income schools.

For organizations like DRDFS, the next challenge is to find ways to amplify these efforts and expand partnerships to scale impact. Initiatives such as the newly established Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential (MiLEAP) are a promising start. Aligning efforts from early childhood to career, this department has the potential to change Michigan’s trajectory. One of the three broad goals of the department is to “prioritize community, regional, and state partnerships that help our students succeed.” Partnerships are going to be essential to reach the state’s goal of increasing the number of Michigander’s with a skill certificate or college degree to 60% by 2030. Alignment and partnerships are the key to ensuring students have the personal connections in order to navigate the path through post-secondary education and reach their goals.

A Critical Moment

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment grew 2.1% in fall 2023 — the first increase since the beginning of the pandemic. The appetite for higher education is there. That means we have reached a pivotal moment of opportunity.

Now is the time to listen to our communities, understand the barriers they are experiencing and provide clear, collaborative solutions. When it comes to perceptions around post-secondary education, the data matters. If we hope to change the narrative, though, we must center the voices of communities and programs helping rewrite the script.

Thanks to the work happening across Michigan, we already know many of the strategies that will encourage students to enroll and persist in post-secondary institutions. It will take a concerted, consistent investment at the state level to elevate best practices and pipeline programs to create an inclusive and equitable culture that demonstrates the impact that higher education can have for each student, family and community.

In Good Company

Receiving the inaugural MCAN Harbor Award is a validation of DRDFS’ mission—and an inspiring opportunity to connect with groups that share similar goals and ideals

The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) is a leading organization in Michigan’s college access movement. The organization has done great work to improve the futures of Michigan’s students and communities by making college more accessible. Their work is not just consistent with the DRDFS mission, it also represents an inspirational example of what the broader community can accomplish collectively in support of the young people who will make an enduring positive impact on Michigan’s future.

Last month, DRDFS was honored to receive MCAN’s first-ever Harbor Award, presented to an organization that has significantly contributed to the college access field through direct service in its community. The award was presented at the College Access Impact Awards, MCAN’s annual event honoring “the individuals and organizations who have made extraordinary efforts to improve postsecondary attainment in Michigan, especially among low-income students, first-generation college-going students and students of color.”

“DRDFS shares our vision of providing equitable opportunities for students to earn a post-secondary credential, reach their career goals, and strengthen their communities,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, MCAN executive director. “We are proud to honor DRDFS’ work with the inaugural Harbor Award.”

The College Access Impact Awards program has recognized more than 100 people and organizations since the awards began in 2015. DRDFS was one of 13 individuals and organizations honored at the 2023 event, which was held in Mount Pleasant. To be recognized alongside so many individuals and organizations doing such extraordinary and admirable work was a memorable and rewarding experience.

After more than 30 years of serving Southeast Michigan students, this is a noteworthy moment for DRDFS: an important step for a grassroots organization that continues to grow and make an increasingly significant impact. The MCAN Harbor Award is also a distinct honor specifically because of the award’s focus on and recognition of community impact.

DRDFS is part of a larger community that extends across Southeast Michigan. There are so many hardworking and inspiring people who support the organization. From high school advisors and principals to the DRDFS alumni who come back to talk to students, DRDFS truly does rely on the hard work, involvement, and support of so many. DRDFS was founded to address a need in the community, and community and connectivity remain at the core of that mission and at the heart of the DRDFS organizational identity.

“We feel so fortunate to be a part of this important time in our students’ lives,” said Christa Funk, DRDFS executive director. “Students across our state, in every community, need all of us to keep being that harbor: a place to belong and a place where every student can thrive as they pursue post-secondary attainment. We look forward to continuing our work to help them make their goals a reality.”



Applied Initiative

Southeast Michigan high school seniors have an opportunity to learn, apply, and in some cases, get accepted to college at the DRDFS Apply Day.

For hundreds of Detroit-area high school students, getting accepted to college and continuing their educational journey is the culmination of a three-year Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) program experience that is all about helping them take that all-important next step to post-secondary education.

Which is why it was such a thrill for Miranda Alonzo, a Detroit Cristo Rey High School student who attended Apply Day, to find out at the event that she was one of the students who had been accepted to Eastern Michigan University (EMU).

“I was looking forward to checking out several colleges, but EMU was one I really wanted to apply to,” said Miranda. “I filled out some paperwork, submitted my transcript, and they got back to me right away with an acceptance letter and a scholarship offer. It happened so quickly, and it was such an incredible feeling.”

Miranda was one of more than 100 Metro Detroit high school seniors involved in the DRDFS Next Level Scholars Program who attended Apply Day on Wednesday, October 25, 2023 at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor. A college fair environment with representatives from universities, community colleges and trade schools across the region in attendance, Apply Day gives DRDFS program participants the chance to attend FAFSA and financial literacy workshops, a scholarship information session, and a college transition seminar led by DRDFS transition coaches. The highlight for many, however, was the potential for an on-site college acceptance experience like Miranda’s.

According to DRDFS Program Director Marissa D’Angelo, there were almost 50 colleges, universities, and trade schools in attendance, including The University of Detroit Mercy, Central Michigan University, Grand Valley University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Western Michigan University.

“It’s so rewarding to be there and watch as these students we’ve worked so closely with for years realize their dream of a college education become a reality,” said D’Angelo. “Like Miranda, many of the students will be the first-ever in their families to attend college.”

For Detroit Cristo Rey High School student Melanie Barron, who plans to apply to her self-described dream school, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the event was a chance to broaden her horizons and continue what has been a remarkable experience with DRDFS.

“My experience with DRDFS has been great,” said Melanie. “It’s offered me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and it has consistently pushed me to put myself out there. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and the experience.”

One of those opportunities turned into acceptance reality for Melanie, as she was accepted on-site to EMU. EMU college admissions professional Misty Sparrow says that the school was able to complete 20 on-site admissions at the event and connected with many other students who are planning to apply to EMU in the future.

“This is such an important event,” said Misty. “Because it gives students a chance to hear from these institutions and learn about their options and financial aid possibilities—everything they need to make sure they are prepared for the next step in their educational journey. I work closely with DRDFS as an on-campus partner at Eastern, where we host a DRDFS event every January. It’s been so fun to see the students here today, some of whom I recognize from attending our on-campus event two years ago.”

Clintondale High School Counselor Courtney Carroll said, “All eight of the students we brought today were accepted to EMU, a full-circle moment considering that EMU was their first college trip as sophomores. In a process that can feel so overwhelming, this is such a fun kickoff to senior year.” Courtney was particularly complimentary of the financial literacy piece of the Apply event. “I know from my own experience how abstract things like student loans and interest rates seemed when I was younger,” she explained. “So it’s powerful to see them learning these valuable insights.”

University of Michigan-Flint representative Nikolas Davis gave kudos to DRDFS for planning and hosting the Apply event. Davis pointed out that the benefits go both ways. “This is obviously a great opportunity for students, but it’s also a great opportunity for universities, as well. It’s gratifying to talk to students who were already interested in our university, but also to talk to those who hadn’t heard of us before and now want to know more.” Davis says University of Michigan-Flint was able to offer on-site admission to about 10 to 15 students.

Milestone moments like the ones so many students experienced at this year’s Apply event are part of what makes DRDFS so impactful to so many. It’s why students like Miranda Alonzo are “so grateful to be a part of this program that means so much to me—and to so many other students like me.”

Sustained Support—Enduring Impact

Connections and recollections at the DRDFS Downtown Networking Tailgate

One of the most impactful elements of the support that Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) provides to more than 400 high school students annually is that their support doesn’t end when those students graduate high school. It continues throughout college, with regular check-ins, personal meetings, thoughtful counsel, and educational, personal, and professional guidance.

It’s the kind of sustained and sincere commitment that prompts Omimah Yahya, a DRDFS program grad and a junior at the University of Detroit-Mercy to observe that “Everyone thinks it’s just a high school program. That’s what I thought, too. But the support continues. DRDFS is always reaching out and checking in, continuing to provide counsel and support and opportunities for connection at alumni events.”

Fittingly enough, Omimah made that observation at the DRDFS Downtown Networking Tailgate, which took place on Thursday, September 28, 2023 at the One Campus Martius building in downtown Detroit. The unique networking event provided an opportunity for professionals from different companies in and around Detroit to come together to make new connections, learn more about DRDFS, and take in the incredible view. Alumni from the DRDFS Next Level Scholars program were on hand to share their stories and explain how DRDFS made a difference in their lives.

For DRDFS alumnus Alexander Connelly, who graduated high school in 2020 and currently attends the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor that difference manifested itself in everything from SAT prep and application assistance to college campus visits. “That’s why I’m here today,” said Connelly. “I really want to give back. I really love this program and all they do for education.” For current Macomb Community College student Malik Knight, DRDFS provides “a different level of outreach” that continues today. More importantly, the program helped him recognize that “I have the ability to control my own future.” DRDFS was similarly life-changing for program alum Angeles Cuevas, who graduated from Eastern Michigan with a double major in Spanish and communications. Angeles shared that as helpful as DRDFS was for her in high school, “I’ve actually benefited more from the program after high school. When my parents were stranded in Mexico because of border closures during COVID, DRDFS was there for me, helping me stay on track in school and in life.”

Stories like these are why Anthony Catalina, Senior Vice President, Commercial Sales Manager with the event’s presenting sponsor Fifth Third Bank, took to the podium at the event to say that Fifth Third is “so glad to be supporting an organization like DRDFS which has such a meaningful impact on the students and communities of southeastern Michigan.”

It is also why DRDFS Executive Director Christa Funk, who spoke about the DRDFS Next Level Scholars program, pointed out that “in addition to the high school programming, we provide 1:1 college coaching and a $4,000 scholarship to each graduate of our program.” Funk also pointed out that DRDFS works with over 650 program alumni pursuing post-secondary pathways across the country. She referenced that metrics show DRDFS students outpacing their peers on both the state and national level, but she also made the point that behind the data and stats it’s the students themselves that demonstrate what impact really looks like.

Their testimony, and the presence and personalities of program alumni at events like the Downtown Networking Tailgate, is a powerful reminder of why a program that was founded in 1990 at a single high school has flourished and expanded—and now serves 16 partner high schools across the five southeast Michigan counties, impacting the lives of hundreds of students and families every year.


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