It’s crunch time for student financial aid assistance centers as thousands of volunteer and paid financial aid experts work with first-generation, low-income and minority youth and their families to prepare for and complete the national college financial aid form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA.
Although helping complete the FAFSA form – whose complexity has been lessened during the Obama administration – is the prime objective of many programs, educational and youth development leaders are urging more financial help for students deciding on a college, so they don’t sign up for programs that will require tens of thousands in loans, when alternatives are available.
They say filling out FAFSA should be considered just the first step in providing expert financial advice; that these students and their families need guidance in overall financial planning for college, including determining what college is most suitable and affordable and how to make decisions about grants and loans.
But even agencies that provide such wrap-around services say their biggest challenge is connecting with these non-traditional college-hopefuls to let them know help is available. Traditional outreach methods such as flyers or television ads simply haven’t reached the people who need FAFSA help and more. What works is mostly word of mouth, despite various attempts to connect in other ways.
And even word of mouth, they say, isn’t reaching families with incomes under $20,000, whose children may have given up hope of a higher education because they don’t know about the programs and money available to them.
A changing operation
The event known as College Goal Sunday began in 1989 when the Indiana Financial Aid Association wanted to help youth who frequently were not taking advantage of the FAFSA to make college affordable. The association realized the week after the Super Bowl was a dead period, and its modest initiative to disseminate information to students and families and, if possible, begin filling out the forms, was born.
Original funding was from the Lumina Foundation, then in 2008 the YMCA of the USA took over the program, now in 40 states with thousands of volunteer financial aid administrators. While some states still hold an information event for parents and students the week after Super Bowl Sunday, College Goal Sunday’s National Director Marcia Westin said it’s now much more of a year-round operation with the busy season lasting from January through May.
Computers have transformed the FAFSA completion process and College Goal Sunday. Rather than demonstrating to a large group of people how to complete the form, volunteers now walk individual students and their families through completing the form online, trying to assist as many families as possible.
More than FAFSA
The need for providing more than just FAFSA help is exemplified by Andrew Cuomo’s January decision – as he left the position as New York attorney general to be sworn in as governor – to fund a 24-hour call center and website offering student loan assistance using $13 million in fines paid by numerous lending companies accused of providing kickbacks and deceptive marketing practices.
Although only in the early throes of being set up, the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation and the New York Public Interest Research Group have already been announced as the recipients of the cash, which still sits in the Attorney General’s Office.
Though there are some similar financial assistance groups, their numbers are few.
These groups offer more detailed financial guidance for students whose families have little experience with long-term financial planning, helping students to understand the difference between grants and loans, hoping to prevent students from getting themselves into financial situations they can’t handle.
One of these is Nashville College Connection in Tennessee, which is built “much more around relationship development and youth development than it is around college access,” said Jeff Dotts, its director. A major part of making college affordable and attainable at Nashville College Connection, he said, is helping the youth understand what the college is like – that it’s far more than just an extension of high school.
Both Westin and Dotts are part of an intermediary organization called the National College Access Network (NCAN), which tracks the best practices of college access programs.
“College access programs that are willing to do a FAFSA whenever, wherever is the approach that will work,” said MorraLee Holzapfel, director of technical assistance for NCAN and co-chair of College Goal Sunday’s Ohio branch.
Holzapfel said more than 99 percent of all FAFSAs filed last year were done electronically and the newest practice involves college access groups partnering with tax preparation companies, such as H&R Block, to have a tax preparer on site working jointly with the financial aid administrator to help the student or family fill out the FAFSA.
From application to decision
A Massachusetts-based program, called simply ACCESS, tries to assist students throughout the college financial aid process by putting the program directly into the schools.
Bob Giannino-Racine, ACCESS’ CEO, said the program is now available in 53 schools, though all Boston and Springfield, Mass., students may partake in the program, free of charge.
* In September and October, a full-time ACCESS employee addresses the student body of each participating school, explaining the financial aid process and telling students how to find ACCESS.
* Afterward, interested students go to the ACCESS office at the school for an intake, or orientation, session. “We’re learning a little about them and what their path has been up until that moment and what their prospects are, what they’re looking at in terms of schools,” Giannino-Racine said.
* If the student wants to apply to a number of public schools, ACCESS arranges a second meeting in order to research private scholarships.
* In January, counselors remind students of the materials they need to bring with them in order to fill out a FAFSA. Then the students and their families return to fill out the FAFSA, often in one session, sometimes more if there are complicated background issues.
* Frequently students must go through a verification process on their forms – in other words their FAFSA gets bounced back due to missing or inconsistent information. ACCESS hosts a session for these students to show them how to fix their forms.
* Once students receive their award letters from colleges, ACCESS offers a private session, during which they compare factors such as how much debt they will likely incur at each school and discuss whether they should consider work study programs.
*Students then make their college decision on their own, but can still come back at any time to find out about negotiating for increased aid or figuring out how to borrow more money to fill in any gaps.
The procrastinators or late-comers to the process are never turned away. “We’ll just expedite all the previous steps to the degree that we can,” Giannino-Racine said. “Advisers will really fast forward a lot of that work and collect what’s critically important for that moment.”
Help for foster children
Jeff Dotts’ Nashville College Connection, an initiative of the nonprofit Oasis Center, offers many of the same personalized services, with the focus on the youth first and then talking about college and family later.
“We have a lot of young people we work with who are in foster care or have been adopted after the age of 14,” Dotts said. “We really need to cycle through each of those kids and what their situations are so we can make sure we can provide documentation that is necessary rather than blanket documentation where we don’t need half of it.
“Once we’ve gotten a handle on that, we try to engage parents. A lot of our young people’s parents are working multiple jobs or are not working at all, and our typical student’s family income is going to be less than $36,000, which for the most part makes them fully Pell eligible,” Dotts said.
The Iowa College Access Network (ICAN) – which serves 98 percent of the state’s high schools and takes walk-ins and scheduled appointments at three community offices – operates on a model somewhat similar to College Goal Sunday: get ‘em in, get ‘em out.
“What typically happens is we’ll start off with some basic questions and then we’ll jump right into the form,” ICAN spokeswoman Brittania Morey said. “We have a financial aid expert sitting in the office who actually completes the form, answering any questions they might have, explaining why certain information is asked. Once the form is completed we submit the form and then we go over the results.”
The goal is to get the form out as fast as possible – they average 30 to 45 minutes per application, Morey estimates – though there are follow-up services available as well.
More Financial Resources
Holzapfel, of NCAN, recommends two other groups that provide wrap-around services similar to ACCESS and Nashville College Connection.
- The ACCESS College Foundation in Tidewater, Va. helps students at 29 public high schools with all aspects of the college process, including financial aid and college entrance test regulations.
- The Cincinnati Youth Collaborative also works with public schools, connecting with youth beginning in middle school to get them thinking about college and supplements its financial aid advising with college campus tours and other services.
Nashville College Connection: www.nashvillecollegeconnection.org, (615) 983-6867.
ACCESS – www.accessedu.org, (617) 778-7195 – Boston, (413) 755-4907 – Springfield.
Iowa College Access Network – www.icansucceed.org, (877) 272-4692.
Cincinnati Youth Collaborative – www.cycyouth.org, (513) 475-4165
ACCESS College Foundation (Norfolk, Va.) – www.accesscollege.org, (757) 962-6113
NCAN’s full member directory –