No, you don't need a college degree to enjoy a successful career. But it helps.

Done the right way, a college education can increase lifetime earnings by as much as $1 million.  On average, college graduates enjoy heightened job security and employability.  They are 3.5 times less likely to live in poverty, 47 percent more likely to enjoy health benefits, and 24 percent more likely to be employed.

Done the wrong way, the pursuit of a college education can present undeniable challenges.  College graduates with outsized student loan debt delay marriage, home-buying, and retirement planning.  And, what can be said for those who don't finish college?  Well, the price tag of an education investment unfilled can be quite steep.

With student loan debt at $1.5 trillion nationwide, it is worth asking whether students are getting a return on their investment. For Philadelphia, a city ranking at the top in poverty and at the bottom in college attainment, it may be more important to ask:  How can we help more students realize the upside of a college education?

A place to start is with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the FAFSA.  Every year, from Oct. 1 through June 30, the U.S. Department of Education accepts applications from students through its online FAFSA portal.  It is the tool colleges use to evaluate a student's eligibility for a broad range of financial assistance – from grants of up to $6,095, to federal student loans to scholarships and work-study programs.

Nationally, billions of dollars in college assistance are left on the table every year — an estimated $2.3 billion by the class of 2017, according to NerdWallet.  Locally, if every eligible Philadelphia high school senior applied for aid through FAFSA, an estimated $38 million in college assistance would  benefit our students.

With all this money available, why would eligible students and their families not apply?  Some aren't aware.  The National College Access Network, a coalition of nonprofit college advising programs, contends that the lowest rates of FAFSA awareness are among low-income populations — those that stand the most to gain from federal financial aid.

Others are convinced they could never afford college, so why try?  We need to change this mindset.  Research by the National College Access Network shows a dramatic correlation between FAFSA completion and college-going rates.  Of students who complete the FAFSA, 90 percent entered college the year after high school.  This percentage drops to 55 percent among those who don't complete the FAFSA.

And, finally, even among those who are inclined to embark on the FAFSA, like most federal programs, the application process can be intimidating and complicated.  Think IRS tax forms.  Unfortunately, some families begin and, finding themselves overwhelmed, don't finish.  Others, unnecessarily, turn to fee-based advisers to help them complete this free application.

Recognizing the opportunities and the challenges, the School District of Philadelphia has made increasing FAFSA completion rates, which currently stand at 72 percent, a key priority.  At their side are such partners as  PhillyGoes2College, an online college advising resource supported by the Philadelphia Commerce Department and administered by the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit with more than 30 years of experience operating college access programs in Philadelphia and who, this year, will advise more than 5,000 students attending 16 public schools.

As part of College Awareness Month, PhillyGoes2College will host a FAFSA Kick-Off Event on Oct. 3 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the School District of Philadelphia, 440 N. Broad St. There are three goals:  First, to support those with college ambitions — from families of high school students just beginning the process to adults with some college under their belt and eager to finish.  The event will match attendees with volunteer FAFSA coaches from the Philadelphia Education Fund, College Possible, and West Philadelphia Promise Corps.  It will offer financial aid and money management workshops  and provide resource tables from the Community College of Philadelphia, the Office of Adult Education, NextGenVest, Graduate! Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Treasury, to name a few.

Second, to get as many families as possible started on their FAFSA applications and to connect them to resources so that they complete the forms. Throughout Philadelphia, from October through April, PhillyGoes2College and its partners will coach and support families and students through monthly FAFSA events.

Third, and most importantly, to extract more of those FAFSA dollars out of the federal Treasury and into the pockets of Philadelphia's high school students.  There is $38 million in aid available for Philadelphia's eligible high school seniors.  Let's not let those dollars go unclaimed and those college promises they would fund go unfulfilled.

 Farah Jimenez is president and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund.