Three college and career fairs and eight financial aid nights are planned around Pinellas County over the next few weeks.
Tables will be filled with pamphlets and recruiters will be eager to talk, but organizers say it's up to students to come prepared and make the most of the one-stop events, which are geared to seniors planning life after high school.
At the fairs — including the first one Monday night at Clearwater High — dozens of colleges, technical schools, vocational schools and universities will line up to pitch their institutions to parents and students. Representatives from more than 80 schools will attend the Sept. 22 event at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Clearwater High will host more than three dozen.
"Students will be talking to at least a sampling of different size schools and speaking about their goals for college," said Pamela Iusi, vice president of Clearwater High's Parent Teacher Student Association.
"We tell students not to fear the fairs," said Holly Kickliter, director of enrollment at USF St. Petersburg. "We do ask them to come with their top questions, with an agenda, choose the top 10 institutions and compare notes after the events to maximize your time there."
Among the issues to consider when looking at a school, according to Kickliter: the number of professors teaching classes as opposed to teaching assistants, the amount of online coursework required, and what kind of experience students want during their college years.
At Clearwater High, volunteers will distribute a list of questions students can use to launch conversations with recruiters.
Whether from a technical school or a college, recruiters seek students with an interest in success and willingness to learn, according to Cecile Directo, marketing and recruitment coordinator for Pinellas Technical Education Center.
"Students and parents need to realize that it's an equal opportunity for success," she said. "You don't need to go to college to succeed." Technical programs can allow students to enter the workforce quicker and save money for further education.
For many students, money considerations will impact their post-high school plans, which is where the financial aid seminars come in. High school guidance counselors and financial aid specialists will answer questions and provide ways for seniors to explore aid options.
"Most of the scholarships are going to be available throughout senior year," said Brooke Pair, a Countryside High guidance services specialist. "Bright Futures is a big piece that parents have heard of. There are deadlines to be aware of, which the financial aid seminars go over."
The sessions also offer information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which students must complete if they plan to seek federal grants, college loans or work-study aid.
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According to the Florida College Access Network, just 43 percent of Florida public high school seniors completed the FAFSA last school year. With the goal of increasing that number, the network announced last week that it has devised an online tool showing FAFSA completion rates for more than 500 high schools in the state.
"College and career readiness goes far beyond academics," said Troy Miller, senior researcher and policy analyst for the group. "Without the necessary financial resources, many students simply can't afford college. Our students benefit when their schools embrace the financial aid process."
For those who heed those words, Andrew Weatherill, a guidance services specialist for Countryside High, has some additional advice.
"Make sure that when you're completing applications, that you're answering every question and you're following whatever rules that they have set up," he said. "They need to make sure there's correct spelling and language they intend to use. Be as professional as possible."