What if the H1N1 outbreak that is sweeping the nation is not really the end of the world, as we know it? What if the pandemic does not stop us from getting our kids to college? We know that our kids are going to college, no matter what. In fact, we know that we are going to go to college with them! Necessity is the mother of invention.
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When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the high school students of the class of 2021 faced many challenges: Distance learning, balancing schoolwork with family support jobs, and a stressful and time-consuming college experience. Part of this process, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is an early indicator of a student’s intent to pursue higher education after high school. When schools closed last spring, the number of students filling out the FAFSA dropped dramatically across the country, and the numbers remain low, especially among black students and youth. Massachusetts is no exception, but at Match Charter Public High School in Boston, we learned that schools can change this trend in a few steps.
Match High School has over 300 students from all over Boston, 48% of whom identify as black and 47% as Hispanic/Latino. Match’s mission is to prepare students for success in college and beyond, especially students who will be the first in their families to complete a college education. With access to colleges and careers at the core of our mission, our guidance team helps all students in grades 9-12 with college prep courses, enrollment and application assistance for academic and enrichment programs, and more. But each fall semester we focus on high school students and their college application process.
And while personal applications, proposals, and supplemental essays take up a lot of our high school students’ time and energy, the financial aid process is perhaps the most important part of their journey to college. Despite the serious problems caused by the pandemic, Match is proud to report that as of April, 100% of high school students who are eligible for financial aid and plan to attend college next year have completed their application forms, most before winter break in December. While the work was not easy, we learned some important lessons that we hope will be useful to other public schools looking to increase their enrollment numbers before the June deadline.
Don’t talk about college without talking about financial aid
At Match, we never talk to students about universities and job applications without also talking about financial aid. We know that going to college is very important, but we also know that going to college and not being able to afford it is heartbreaking, which is why financial aid and college affordability are at the center of our work. While there are many reasons why students and families choose a particular college or plan after high school, most students make their decision based on the affordability of the institution. And determining which university is the most affordable is not easy. Sometimes the most expensive university can be the cheapest, and sometimes the university that offers the most scholarships is the least affordable.
It all starts with deciphering tuition. Even before we make appointments with high school students and their families to fill out the financial aid application, we hold 4-5 classes on financial aid in our college and career program so high school students know what financial aid is, where it comes from (grants, subsidies, loans), and how financial aid decisions are made (FAFSA and CSS profile). Overall, the goal of these financial aid classes is to ensure that students are wise consumers and know how to handle financial aid matters.
Regarding the timeline for completing the FAFSA, our goal is to have as many of our students as possible submit the application before winter break (but if you are one of the schools that missed this, don’t worry, you still have time!) We are setting this initial deadline for winter break because some types of need-based aid are awarded first, such as. B. Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs), scholarships, and federal work-study programs. And because college admissions processes begin as early as November and December, we do not want to advise students and families to make a decision about which college to attend before they have received a financial aid package that may require them to take out loans for expenses that exceed the estimated family contribution. The sooner the FAFSA is completed, the sooner students can receive the aid package along with their college application and the better informed they will be to consider their admission options.
In one class this year, we asked students to create their own FSA (Federal Student Aid) IDs even before the application had started. This has saved a lot of time in family meetings with the FAFSA. So we decided to start the process with the younger students in the spring to get a head start in the fall.
Communicate early and often with students and families
In a normal year, Match High School hosts a personal FAFSA night for high school students and their families to complete forms and applications, with financial aid experts on hand to offer assistance and answer questions. Students may also visit the College and Careers office to complete paperwork with the team.
During the pandemic, we accomplished the same goal by instead holding three virtual FAFSA Family Nights, each with separate rooms for the families’ language needs, to ensure the fullest participation of families. These sessions focused on building trust between all involved in the process, and separate virtual meetings were scheduled with students and families to complete the application form. Because completing these forms involves sharing sensitive and personal information, it is important that students and families feel comfortable and supported every step of the way.
After these initial meetings, we sent a letter to all students and families outlining the documents needed to complete the financial aid process. This mailing included a sample FAFSA so we could track down situations where students fill out the forms themselves, but with their parents’ permission (families are busy!). It also included an FSA ID authorization form for the student and for the parents, as well as photos of the financial information needed to complete the financial aid application. When we met in person, the students brought printouts of all this information so that we could work with them, side by side, to fill out the applications.
Each student also received a one-hour appointment with a school and career counselor in early fall. After preparing the stack of required tax documents, the team helped each student complete the FAFSA. Some of these meetings lasted up to two hours, depending on what was needed to help a particular student in the process.
It does not stop at FAFS
In all that it takes to complete the FAFSA, it should be noted that the FAFSA is not the only piece of the financial aid puzzle. Many students are also required to submit a full CSS profile, which is mandatory for many private schools. The CSS profile requires information from both biological parents, even if one of them is not the custodial parent. Depending on the student’s family situation, this process can be very difficult and stressful.
And that’s not all. After completing the FAFSA application and CSS profile, universities want to see income verification information, which requires students to submit information through the online portal. Such a financial statement is embarrassing. A student can do whatever it takes, but the college still wants more information from him. Although financial screening should be random, we found that low-income students and their families are often selected for screening. And this last step can be a major barrier to college admission. Across the country, students have been denied admission to college because they have not gone through this screening process. At Match, we make sure students know if they are being assessed and what they need to do to submit official college applications on time.
There are many facets to the financial aid application process, not to mention the fact that students are simultaneously working on their college applications and supplemental essays. Needless to say, it can be incredibly difficult and stressful for students and their families in non-pandemic years to navigate their way through the many requirements and forms they must fill out, especially for those unfamiliar with the US university system or who speak a language other than English. And for students from low-income families, like those we help at Match, a financial aid package can make or break the student and family’s decision about where to enroll. But these are not insurmountable obstacles, even in the case of a pandemic.
It takes a lot of time and work, but we can all reverse the decline in the number of completed FAFSA forms. We are committed to supporting our families as much as possible so that our students have affordable higher education options, ultimately enabling them to achieve their higher education dreams and economic mobility.
This source has been very much helpful in doing our research. Read more about why students should go back to school during covid-19 and let us know what you think.