Addressing a Shortage of Skilled Workers and Providing Opportunities for Disadvantaged Students

4 min readJul 25, 2023

By Jim Purcell, Executive Director, Alabama Commission on Higher Education

To address the state of Alabama’s shortage of skilled workers, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey set a postsecondary education attainment goal of adding 500,000 degree holders to Alabama’s workforce by 2025. To support this effort, Governor Ivey and the Alabama State Board of Education made Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion a requirement for high school students effective with the May 2022 graduating class.

At the end of the first academic year of implementation, FAFSA completion rose 30 percent! In May 2022, Alabama ranked #1 in the year-over-year increase when compared to other states. The greatest increases occurred with students from low-income schools (39%), high minority schools (43%) and those living in small towns (40%) and rural areas (36%). Alabama also saw an increase in the direct from high school college-going rate in fall 2022, especially at the state’s community colleges.

Because of the short time frame between the announcement (April 2021) and the graduation requirement (May 2022), the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) collaborated with Oracle to regularly communicate with high school seniors about the importance of completing the FAFSA, assisting with application errors, and alerting seniors of other scholarship opportunities. In addition, a web portal developed by an Oracle partner, Sierra-Cedar, provides the public with completion rates for school districts and high schools in the state. District staff also have secure access to student-specific information about the completion status for each of their students, including identification of error messages a student receives that must be addressed before their application can be considered complete. The information available to district staff shows only completion status and types of FAFSA errors and does not show family income or other personal family information.

Alabama officials found that direct communications to students had the greatest impact because these communications focused on the specific needs of the student in real time. When a student had not applied, the student was encouraged to apply for college and complete the FAFSA. When FAFSA error messages occurred, a friendly communication would arrive highlighting the solutions to these errors. And once the application was complete, students were given links to other scholarships available that required a completed FAFSA as a part of their application process. For example, students attending the Birmingham City School District were reminded that community and corporate foundations support students graduating from the district with a Birmingham Promise scholarship, but that a completed FAFSA was required. The work of school counselors and career coaches was also supported by these communications. The initiative also supports the work of college and university financial aid offices because of the reduced number of financial aid applications that come to them with errors. Earlier completion of the FAFSA also helps institutions with offering campus aid to students at earlier dates.

Nationally, completion of the FAFSA is the student’s gateway to over $150 billion in federal aid, as well as many state and institutional aid programs. Research has found that FAFSA completion and college enrollment are closely associated, as 92% of graduating seniors across the U.S. who completed the FAFSA enrolled in college by the following fall. Last year, Alabama students left roughly $67.8 million in unclaimed Pell Grant money on the table. A college degree for first-generation higher education students provides social mobility, and it is not uncommon for a first-generation student’s initial income after graduation to exceed the student’s family’s total income. Education can be linked not only to higher incomes but also to better health and more civic engagement.

The state of Alabama is open for business, and business is certainly booming. However, the state currently faces a shortage of skilled workers to fill roles addressing the significant workforce development growth within various industries, most notably aerospace and automotive. Some of the top employers in Alabama include Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Airbus, Honda, Toyota, and Mazda. Mazda began production of its CX-50 crossover SUV in January 2022 at its new Huntsville location where 4,000 employees are located. Plans also continue to progress to relocate the U.S. Space Command from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, adding another 2,000 jobs to the state. Two-thirds of these future employees sought will require a four-year university degree, while the other one-third will earn their two-year credentials at an Alabama community college.

Alabama officials are readily sharing their approach to expanding educational opportunity for all its citizens with others seeking to optimize college participation in their state. For more information, contact the Alabama Commission on Higher Education at 334–242–2123.




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