Schools must do more to help students and families submit financial aid forms

Photo: Alison Yin/EdSourcePhoto: Alison Yin/EdSourceStacey Caillier and Ben DaleyFebruary 24, 2020Aaliyah Eslava-Deanda is a speech pathology major at UC Irvine and the first in her family to attend a four-year college. But she didn’t always know she would get to college.
Stacey CaillierFortunately, her high school counselor made sure she applied to college and that her family completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). As a result, she received a Cal Grant, a Pell Grant and additional scholarships that provided her with a full ride.
For students to receive a Cal Grant — which provides qualified students with up to $50,000 they don’t have to pay back — they need to submit a completed FAFSA application (of, if undocumented or nonresident students, a California Dream Act application) before March 2.
Yet, across California, thousands of high-achieving, low-income students such as Eslava-Deanda will not complete this form and may not attend college. Studies have shown that helping families complete the FAFSA leads to increased college enrollment and success. So why don’t more students complete the FAFSA?
Ben DaleyThere are many reasons:
The FAFSA is complicated.
Parents may feel ambivalent about sending their children to college, especially if they rely on them for child care or for income to support the family.
Students may feel ambivalent about going to college, worried about leaving their families, or that they won’t belong.
Even the most supportive school counselor can feel frustrated with what can look like a lack of initiative or follow-through but is often fear and confusion. We worry, “If we coddle them now, then we are not setting them up for success later when we are not around?” We fear we may do them a disservice by holding their hands.
And yet, many of the most affluent students — those who have grown up knowing they would go to college and whose parents often have advanced degrees — get coddled at every step of the college admissions process, and may not even need to seek financial aid.
One of us (Daley) taught Advanced Placement physics at an elite East Coast school, where three full-time college counselors managed the college application process for 70 seniors. Teachers sent letters of recommendation directly to the counselors, who edited them. Students gave their materials to the counselor, who assembled the application and sent it in.
While much of this can seem beyond our control, it is worth asking:
What would we do if we believed that the responsibility to get kids to college was on us as counselors and educators — that if they failed to enroll, it is because we had let them fail?
The answer is, we would coddle our students who need it most: The students who may fear they don’t belong in college. The students whose families don’t know how to navigate the application process or don’t see college as a viable financial option.
For those schools courageous enough to make a difference before this year’s Cal Grant deadline, consider these steps that Southern California schools in the CARPE college access network are taking to help students and families complete the FAFSA or California Dream Act applications:
Access your school’s California Student Aid Commission data to identify high-priority students — those high-achieving, low-income students eligible for a Cal Grant — who have not completed the FAFSA or California Dream Act applications.
Proactively reach out to support completion instead of just providing information or reminders. Pull students out of class to support them in small groups. Relentlessly follow up with individuals until they complete their application. Don’t assume all is well and wait for students to come to you.
Declare “all hands on deck” and tell everyone they have a role in making sure students complete the FAFSA. Who has relationships with your high-priority students and how can you get them involved? What resources in your school and community — tutors, school staff, clergy, caseworkers, mentors, even tax professionals — can you mobilize? Sending our students to college is bigger than one person’s job: We need to expand the village.
In sum, coddle your students. Help students like Eslava-Deanda and their families complete the FAFSA and understand what it means for their future. If coddling is good practice for the students with the most advantages, then surely it is good for the students with the least.
•••
Stacey Caillier is the director of the Center for Research on Equity & Innovation at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education and Ben Daley is president. The graduate school is embedded within a network of K-12 public charter schools and supports multiple privately funded networks for continuous improvement, including the CARPE college access network.
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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