Governor announces $24.7 million grant

Published 9:39 pm Monday, October 11, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Governor Ralph Northam announced a $24.7 million federal GEAR UP grant to increase access to higher education and jobs training for Virginia students. This 7-year grant will allow the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to launch a statewide college access initiative and help ensure Virginia students do not miss out on millions in federal financial aid.

Governor Northam made the announcement at a meeting of the FAFSA Completion Work Group, which outlined strategies to improve students’ completion rates for federal financial aid applications. 

“All students deserve access to a world-class education—and financial aid plays a critical role in making that happen,” said Governor Northam. “Virginia’s commitment to higher education and jobs training is why we are currently the best state in the nation to do business, and why companies from all over the world continue to flock to our Commonwealth. The FAFSA Completion Work Group’s recommendations will ensure every student has the chance to pursue affordable, high-impact degrees and credentials, no matter who they are or where they live.” 

Governor Northam convened the FAFSA work group in March, when he set a long-term goal of every eligible student in Virginia completing a FAFSA application each year. Virginia is currently ranked 26th nationally for FAFSA completion, with a 52.7% completion rate. According to a 2018 study, approximately 15,000 Virginia high school seniors that would have been eligible for Pell grants did not complete the FAFSA, amounting to more than $58 million in federal aid that students left on the table. This aid could have made the difference in thousands of students continuing their education, filling high-impact jobs, and collecting greater earnings over their lifetime.

“Research indicates that those with a college degree have greater lifetime earnings, are healthier, enjoy greater job security, and are more engaged in their communities,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “Higher education cultivates talent to support our 21st century workforce—I am proud of the work Virginia has done and will continue to do to invest in wraparound supports, increase FAFSA completion rates, decrease achievement gaps and improve degree attainment.”

The work group’s report outlines several strategies to increase FAFSA completion, including establishing a College Access and Completion Advisory Board; creating a state dashboard with real-time data for school division and individual school FAFSA completion rates; developing partnerships to provide free tax prep and FAFSA assistance for low-income families; and launching a comprehensive landing page for Virginia FAFSA resources and frequently asked questions. The group’s full report is available here.

Members of the FAFSA work group include:

  • Matthew G. Bailey of Waynesboro, director of counseling, Waynesboro High School, Waynesboro Public Schools
  • Sarah Bazemore of Chesterfield County, school counseling specialist and student assistance systems coordinator, Office of Student Services, Virginia Department of Education
  • Fran Bradford of Richmond, deputy secretary of education
  • Sherika Charity of Petersburg, director of financial aid, Reynolds Community College 
  • Cherrelle Davis of Chesterfield County, professional school counselor, Petersburg City Public Schools
  • Elizabeth F. Dutton of Powhatan County, chief administrative officer, Virginia529
  • Juan P. Espinoza of Blacksburg, associate vice provost for Enrollment Management, director of undergraduate admissions, Virginia Tech
  • Thomas Ferrell of Henrico County, director of high school education at Henrico Public Schools

Megan Healy of Richmond, secretary of labor

  • Erin McGrath of Richmond, assistant director of College Access and PK-12 Outreach, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
  • Sabena Moretz of Mechanicsville, director of government relations, Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia
  • Joy Pugh of Charlottesville, executive director, Virginia College Advising Corps, University of Virginia
  • Judith P. Sams of Cumberland, specialist, Business and Information Technology and Related Clusters, Virginia Department of Education
  • Joseph Wharff of Chesterfield County, associate director, Office of Student Services, Virginia Department of Education
  • Van C. Wilson of Glen Allen, associate vice chancellor, Student Experience and Strategic Initiatives, Virginia Community College System

“The first step to affording college is to complete the FAFSA,” said State Council of Higher Education for Virginia director Peter Blake. “Every student, no matter their income level, should go through the process to determine how much federal money is available to help pay for their postsecondary opportunities. Too often, students leave millions of dollars in unused aid on the table. This is especially problematic for Black, Hispanic and low-income students who are less likely to enroll in college than the state average. As Oct. 1 approaches, we want to remind all Virginians to go to to complete their application.”

The FAFSA is also vitally important for Governor Northam’s new “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Get Ahead” (G3) initiative, which provides financial support to cover the tuition, fees and books of eligible Virginia students who complete a FAFSA form. The G3 Program aims to make community college more affordable for low— to middle-income individuals seeking employment in high-demand sectors such as technology, skilled trades, health care, early childhood education and public safety. Virginians interested in participating in G3 can visit this website to explore their options.

The FAFSA form opens on Oct. 1 each year. For more information, or to fill out the application, visit