Michelle Obama Pitches Student Aid: 'Don't Leave Money on the Table'

February 6, 2014 - 7:28 AM

Michelle Obama Education

First lady Michelle Obama hugs T.C. Williams High School student Edom Tesfa at the school in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, during a workshop to help students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Mrs. Obama told students that filling out the FAFSA is a pivotal step toward finishing their education beyond high school. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(CNSNews.com) - "Almost everyone is eligible for some form of financial aid, and all you have to do to access that aid is fill out this one little form. It's so simple," First lady Michelle Obama told students at a suburban Washington high school on Wednesday. "Don't leave money on the table."

The form is FAFSA -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

"[T]hrough FAFSA, the Department of Education provides more than $150 billion every year in low-interest loans, in grants that you don't have to pay back, and work-study programs that can help cover your educational expenses," Mrs. Obama said.

She equated higher education with freedom: "With a good education, you can get a job that pays a decent salary or more. You can provide for your family, which is key. And you can become whatever you dream of becoming, which is the kind of freedom that I want all of you to have. And filling out the FAFSA form is one of the first and most important steps you can take in that journey, because ... college can be expensive."

College is expensive, and student loan debt can be crushing.

Just five months ago, the U.S. Education Department announced that student loan default rates were continuing to rise. “The growing number of students who have defaulted on their federal student loans is troubling," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Sept. 30.

The latest data show that the national two-year student loan default rate rose from 9.1 percent for FY 2010 to 10 percent for FY 2011. The three-year default rate rose from 13.4 percent for FY 2009 to 14.7 percent for FY 2010.

The Financial Stability Oversight Council, a division of the U.S. Treasury, reported in April 2013 that "large and growing student debt burdens and a poor job market have pushed many borrowers into delinquency." The 2013 annual report also warned of larger economic consequences: "High student debt burdens may impact demand for housing, as young borrowers may be less able to access mortgage credit. Student debt levels may also lead to dampened consumption."

But on Wednesday, Mrs. Obama touted federal student aid applications as quick, easy and free: "And it can help you access the thousands of dollars to help you and your family pay for college. And that's true -- and this is important -- no matter who you are. You don't have to be the valedictorian. You don't have to major in a certain subject. You don't even have to be at the very bottom of the income ladder to receive the money...

"So that's why I'm here. And that's my message for you and for students all across the country: Fill out those forms. Fill them out! (Laughter.) Don't leave money on the table. Parents, don't leave money on the table. Fill out the form."

The event at T.C. Williams is the beginning of a "big, huge campaign" to promote FAFSA on MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, and social media, Mrs. Obama said.

Mrs. Obama urged the T.C. Williams students to spread the word about FAFSA -- "tell your classmates, tell your friends, tell your Valentine sweetheart if you have one, tell somebody about this form and what they can do and all the resources that are available to them. Share this information with the people in your lives, because, as I said at the beginning, not every kid is blessed enough to have the resources that you all do. So your job is to share your blessings with others."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, appearing with Mrs. Obama, said the FAFSA form has never been quicker and simpler to complete:

"And our aim is to make the process even simple. Some day, I hope students who qualify for financial aid based on their tax return will not have to complete a FAFSA at all."