According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, before the end of the decade 59 percent of the jobs in Florida will require post-secondary education, and college graduates will earn twice the money as people without degrees. So why are fewer than one-third of high school seniors in the five-county Southwest Florida region filling out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is required to obtain funding for postsecondary education at technical schools, colleges and universities?
"Until we dive into the root cause of why kids aren't filling out the FAFSA and break down the barrier, we can't help," said Susan McManus, president of the Education Foundation of Collier County-Champions for Learning.
To solve the problem, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization created to benefit the region through endowments, drew together the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools, Southwest Florida Works, the Education Foundation of Collier County-Champions for Learning and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast to form the FutureMakers coalition.
The failure to fill out the FAFSA proved merely to be an indicator of a larger problem. Many high school seniors lacked a post-graduation plan, said Lisa Church, vice president of strategic initiatives for Champions for Learning. She added that high school guidance counselors are overwhelmed, with the average ratio in Florida being one counselor to every 500 students.
The FutureMakers coalition set about solving the problem through a multi-pronged approach that includes recruiting and training volunteer mentors as well as creating a technological tool called GradApp that high school students and their mentors could use on phones, tablets and computers to form a plan. The app provides links to resources for career exploration, job forecasts, education planning, educational funding and budgeting advice. FutureMakers received a $7,275 grant from Wells Fargo to create GradApp.
"Education is the basis of philanthropy for us because education is the basis of getting out of poverty and getting on with life," said Debra Faulk, community affairs officer for Wells Fargo. "If we could help create something to further education, there's no discussion needed. What we found fascinating is this (GradApp) speaks to students in their language and to the FAFSA issue."
Naples-based mobile education app design company MassiveU created the GradApp for FutureMakers. Angelo Biasi, founder and CEO of Massive U, said the app helps solve the post-graduation planning problem by pre-screening information sources for quality and relevance, and then putting all the necessary information together in a concise form in one place that can be easily accessed on all technological devices.
"You do a search for anything these days, and you get so much junk," Biasi said. "It's great we have technology that speaks to kids with pre-vetted information."
GradApp presents the information in a format that interests high school students and will encourage them to keep the app on their phones, Biasi said.
"Learning is the new gaming," he said.