Seniors: What’s your next step?

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Picture of Commissioner of Education Jason Glass
Commissioner Jason E. Glass

January is a time for new beginnings, perhaps this year more so than most. With a COVID-19 vaccine already being distributed in Kentucky, we can look forward to a time when we all can return to a more normal life.

It soon will be a time of new beginnings for this year’s high school seniors. Even though their senior year hasn’t been what they anticipated, now is the time to be following through with plans for what comes next in their lives.

For some of our soon-to-be graduates, what comes next will be heading into the workforce or into one of the armed services. Some seniors may choose additional training or certifications to support their goals for the future. And for others, it will mean attending a traditional two- or four-year higher education institution.

For any senior seeking to extend their education or training, that means they probably will be taking on a financial commitment through tuition, books and fees. As the father of two young children and the holder of a few degrees myself, I know the idea of how to pay for higher education can loom large.

There are options.

First, make sure you take a look at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, otherwise known as the FAFSA. It’s free and it takes less than 30 minutes for most people. Universities use this form to determine who is eligible for aid and in Kentucky, some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Filling out the form now and getting it in early will give you a better chance of getting financial aid to help fund your education.

In Kentucky, our overall FAFSA numbers of seniors who have filled out the FAFSA are down 2.7% from this time last year. And for returning PELL-eligible students, the students with the greatest financial need, the decrease is 3.8%. Each year, the U.S. Department of Education provides more than $120 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds for students. Filling out the FAFSA will help your student see what they are eligible to receive.

There also are 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow you to put money away for your child’s education. That money earns interest until your child is ready to go on after high school and can be used at any 2- or 4-year college, graduate school, vocational/technical education and apprenticeship/certification programs. Take note of contribution limits and tax advantages that both these approaches offer, which you can read more about in this publication from the IRS.

If your student is heading to college or training after high school soon, make sure they check out the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA) webpage and become familiar with all the valuable resources on it. From picking a school to managing money to finding scholarships, KHEAA can provide resources to help your student along their educational journey.

I know this has been a tough year for all our students, but it is particularly difficult for our seniors. You can’t run down to see your guidance counselor between classes if your classes are virtual. Please know that Kentucky’s high school counselors still are available to help you and your student with taking the ACT, finding scholarships or choosing a school, regardless of how classes are meeting. Take advantage of their expertise.

I hope that some of our students will consider teaching as a possible career choice. I know that for me, teaching has been an incredibly rewarding career choice. Every year I spent in the classroom or as a principal or superintendent presented new challenges, new students and new opportunities to learn and grow. It has been an incredible journey and one that I feel privileged to keep exploring.

If you think your student might be interested in teaching, be sure to check out the Kentucky Department of Education’s Go Teach KY website, where you can find a lot of useful information, tips and advice about becoming an educator.

Seniors, wherever your next journey takes you, I wish you well. You have shown great fortitude during the past year when a pandemic threw your personal life and education up into the air. You have persisted and you have made your teachers, your community and especially your family proud. I cannot wait to see what comes next.

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