EDINBURG, Texas – Region One Education Service Center is encouraging high school seniors to complete their financial aid applications through a state-wide challenge. 

In partnership with the Texas Workforce Commission, Texas Regional Bank, Educate Texas and RGV Focus, administrators unveiled their plans to boost student participation and submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to approximately 300 counselors and GEAR-UP facilitators from across the region. The Texas FAFSA Challenge aims to increase application rates through awareness, resources and good-old friendly competition. 

“The enthusiasm of the counselors and GEAR-UP support team is really strong,” said Dr. Daniel P. King, executive director of Region One ESC. “And, we have very dedicated educators in Region One, so I know that this will be a successful initiative.”

King says of the 20 education service centers in the state, Region One has been a leader in FAFSA application completion, despite a universal dip during the pandemic. However, returning to pre-COVID rates and beyond is imperative for students to take full advantage of the federal funds available to them.

“The idea is not to be satisfied with that level – even if it’s leading the state – but to try and get as close as possible to having every single student fill out the FAFSA,” said King.

Eligibility for income-based scholarships and grants as well as state and federal funds is determined by the FAFSA. J. Chris Coxon, managing director for Educate Texas, says this is why it remains one of the highest predictors of college matriculation. 

“Kids need money and a lot of times families don’t have the means to be able to support their kids,” said Coxon. “College is expensive. So, we know that students who fill out their FAFSA – they’re 84 percent more likely to go on to college. We know that students who are experiencing poverty are even more likely to go if they’ve filled out their FAFSA by 127 percent. So, it’s great that the Valley, through this partnership with Texas Regional Bank and the Texas Workforce Commission, is challenging the rest of the state. … I think in the end, the winners are our students, our families and our community as a whole.”

For their part, Educate Texas and their local subset RGV Focus, will provide resources for parents and students, such as guides to filling out the FAFSA in both English and Spanish. Coxon says they have also reached out to tax preparers to help them identify and assist parents with children who may be attending college. Additionally, they will track the data for the competition by region, county and even individual campus with the Texas College Access Network (TxCAN). 

Headlining the rollout event was TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez. He reminded the faculty audience of the importance of students pursuing any kind of secondary education, whether that be obtaining a degree or certification. By introducing them to a wide-range of options and programs, students are more likely to want to continue their education and be happier with their career choice.

“I was here to share … that there’s a value in industry-recognized credentials,” said Alvarez. “There’s nothing wrong with an associate’s degrees, certifications. Everything that we’re doing actually has these articulations.”

Alvarez went on to thank the partners and specifically, Alex Meade, Texas Regional Bank senior vice president of economic development and public finance, for spearheading the initiative after a conversation between the two. 

“The more we started thinking about it, the more we realized that this was not just an issue in the Valley or in Region One, but throughout the entire state of Texas,” said Meade. “… Now, because of my background in economic development that was something that was always very interesting to me because it impacts how we recruit companies.”

He continued, “Oftentimes, education and industry don’t communicate as much as they should, and little do they realize that these two entities need each other. … Because of the role that I have here at the bank and the ability that Texas Regional Bank has given me, they’ve allowed me to start bridging that gap.”

Though he was not able to definitely say what the prize will be, Meade did say that a financial contribution will be made to the education service center and school district with the highest percent change in submitted FAFSA applications for the year. With that incentive, he hopes to see increased completion rates throughout the state. 

Coxon expressed admiration for the local leaders’ vision and efforts to address impediments to continuing an education. Once considered “dropout factories,” Rio Grande Valley schools are now among the best in the state, with students matching or outperforming their peers in nine out of 10 indicators. 

“You’ve seen a tremendous turnaround in the Valley,” said Coxon. “And, it is one of the reasons why I think so many people come down to the Valley to see the great innovation that’s taking place. … This is a great way for this region to continue to demonstrate its leadership.”

The annual deadline for FAFSA applications is June 30.