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Students will get help to file aid forms, graduate sooner with associate degrees

David Wingfield teaches a microbiology class Thursday at Hillsborough Community College. A new program will help students get a degree quicker in fields that hold the most promise for employment. [
ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Jul. 15, 2016

TAMPA — Thanks to years of work by a local coalition, more students will be able to complete their applications for federal aid and enroll in Hillsborough Community College with a clear plan for graduating later from the University of South Florida within six years.

The LEAP coalition set a goal in 2014 of increasing the percentage of Hillsborough County adults who hold a post-secondary degree to 60 percent by 2025. Since then, the 11 coalition groups — including HCC, USF, the city of Tampa, and lead partner the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay — identified community resources available to help students complete their college degrees and assessed the job market to determine what degrees are needed.

This fall, the group launches its first two pilot projects — a drive for high school seniors to complete the complicated Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and FUSE, an admissions program to help HCC students successfully complete their bachelor's degrees in selected fields at USF.

The FUSE program requires students to complete their associate degree at HCC and bachelor's degree from USF within six years. FUSE students are guaranteed admission into one of 11 degree programs at a USF System institution if they earn an associate degree from HCC in three years with a minimum GPA of 2.0.

The selected degree programs, such as biomedical sciences and accounting, are aligned to fields with jobs available in the Tampa Bay area, said Paul Nagy, special assistant to the president for strategic planning at HCC. The program also lays out what courses a student should take each year from enrollment at HCC to graduation from USF.

"I was a transfer student, and when I transferred I had to take many more classes to align with my major, which meant more student debt," Nagy said. "The grad path cuts that out so students won't have to take more credits, and incur more debt and more costs."

A pilot program begins this fall with around 40 students. They will work with advisers who know about courses at both HCC and USF. The advisers will refer them to the FUSE program if they are considered a good fit or if they were barely denied admission to USF, Nagy said.

Right now, there's no cap on the number of participants in the program, but officials want to start small to carefully track progress.

"We landed on the brand FUSE because it encapsulates that we're giving up our institutional egos at HCC and USF and becoming an ecosystem of higher education in the Tampa Bay region, all bound by a common goal that we all want to increase student success and college completion," Nagy said.

Another LEAP initiative will train volunteers from the federal AmeriCorps program and others to help families fill out financial aid paperwork at the same time they receive help filing their taxes. LEAP also hopes to help the school district expand its assistance to students, but details of where and when students will get help filling out the form have yet to be decided.

"The FAFSAs are complicated, especially if your family speaks English as a second language or if the parents have never filled one out before," said Marlene Spalten, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. "That's the one gateway. There are so many students who could qualify for both college and aid and they never go because they don't fill out the form."

Troy Miller, assistant director for research and policy with the Florida College Access Network, said the FAFSA effort will help his group collect data on how many 12th grade students complete the form on a weekly basis. This year the FAFSA is available on Oct. 1, three months earlier than usual.

Florida College Access Network data shows that only 38 percent of 12th graders in Hillsborough County completed the FAFSA from Jan. 1 through July 1, 2016. The group estimates that each year, high school graduates in Hillsborough County miss out on $9 million in federal Pell Grants by not completing the form.

"That's LEAP's goal, to make sure no student decides not to go to college because they think they can't afford it," Miller said.

Based on 2014 data collected by the network, about 41 percent of adults 25 to 64 in Hillsborough County have an associate's degree or higher, Miller said. That's the ninth-highest county rate in the state. Leon County, home of Florida State University, has the highest rate at 55 percent, and Alachua County, home of the University of Florida, is second with 53 percent. Florida ranks 31st in the nation in degree attainment.

"We know that's not going to be adequate to fill the jobs that are going to potentially be here in 2025," Spalten said. "In future jobs, some form of quality post secondary education is going to be required of you. . . . That's why we're trying to keep college as a realistic ambition for more kids than we do now. We'll help you do it."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites

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