Benefits Data Trust (BDT) and the College Board have teamed up to pilot new strategies to help students nationwide complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process – the gateway to billions of dollars in grants and scholarships.

According to BDT officials, in the first phase of the project more than 440,000 students currently taking part in the College Board Opportunity Scholarship program are being offered free personalized FAFSA assistance through a new SMS chatbot named Penny.

"Rigorous research has found that personalized FAFSA assistance dramatically increases college enrollment and persistence, but the field has struggled to provide such assistance at scale," officials stated. "High school seniors can sign up for FAFSA assistance from Penny by registering for the College Board Opportunity Scholarship program at cb.org/opportunity and opting into it from their account."

Completing the FAFSA unlocks all federal grants, loans, and work study, as well as many state and college scholarships. Despite major progress simplifying the FAFSA, it remains a challenge for many to complete, preventing eligible students from receiving billions of dollars in grants and deterring many from pursing higher education altogether.

According to BDT officials, in 2018 only 61 percent of high school graduates completed the FAFSA, meaning students are leaving billions of Pell Grant dollars on the table. Low-income students are eligible for up to $6,195 per year in federal Pell Grants that do not need to be repaid, they said.

“We’re thrilled to be working with the College Board to pilot using technology to provide personalized FAFSA assistance at scale,” said Pauline Abernathy, BDT’s chief strategy officer. “BDT has successfully used data and technology to help families secure more than $7 billion in assistance for food, health care, and housing and we’re excited to help people access student financial aid so they can complete college and increase their economic mobility.”

In 2018, the median earning of a full-time worker 25 and over with a bachelor's degree was $65,400, significantly more than the median earning of a full-time worker 25 and over with a high school diploma, which was $40,500.

Jennifer Mulhern, vice president of mission implementation at the College Board, said each year the College Board helps millions of people find a college that's right for them.

— Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jnelsonRH

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