College & Careers

Pursuit of college financial aid varies widely among high schools



California high school seniors are losing out on potentially hundreds of millions of dollars each year in financial aid – and forgoing the opportunity to attend college they assume they cannot afford – because only half of them fill out the forms for financial aid, according to a new report from Education Trust-West.

But some high schools and some districts do a far better job in

The website with the rates of FAFA and Cal Grant application completion for high schools in the state is http://financialaid.edtrustwest.org/

The website with the rates of FAFSA and Cal Grant application completion for high schools in the state is http://financialaid.edtrustwest.org/

encouraging and assisting students and parents to provide the information, according to Ed Trust-West, which also released a database of all high schools’ and districts’ rates of seniors completing forms for FAFSA  (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and Cal Grants, both of which are required for California students to receive state financial aid. Ed Trust-West also published the 100 high schools with the highest completion rates in its report The Cost of Opportunity: Access to Financial Aid in Califorina.

Those schools were large and small, charter and district schools, with high and low percentages of low-income students, the study found. What they had in common were best practices that included closely monitoring students to see they completed the forms, effectively communicating with families about the application process through college nights at school, and supporting parents and students in what at first might appear to be a daunting process of completing the forms.

A number of charter schools with senior classes of less than 100 students have Cal Grant completion rates of more than 90 percent. Leaders in completion rates with senior classes of 200 or more students include Erma Duncan Polytechnical High in Fresno Unified (86 percent), Fairfax Senior High in Los Angeles Unified (84 percent) and La Quinta High in Garden Grove Unified (83 percent). Application rates tend to be lower in higher-income high schools, perhaps because families recognize they would not qualify financially.

Thirteen districts are part of a pilot program, in which the Federal Student Aid office of the Department of Education informs districts which students have completed their FAFSA forms, so that counselors can follow up to help those who have yet to submit. The Cal Grant completion rate in those districts is 10 percentage points higher (click to enlarge).

Thirteen districts are part of a pilot program, in which the Federal Student Aid office of the Department of Education informs districts which students have completed their FAFSA forms, so that counselors can follow up to help those who have yet to submit. The Cal Grant completion rate in those districts is 10 percentage points higher (click to enlarge).

There’s a strong correlation, wrote Ed Trust-West senior research analyst Orville Jackson, between filling out FAFSA ­ – the form required for work study jobs, student loans and grants – and attending college, with 80 percent of qualified students who didn’t enroll citing the need for financial aid as a barrier. Yet few of those qualified who didn’t pursue college had pursued financial aid, according to a 2008 study.

“Sadly, too many students face financial barriers to a pursue a college education, and many do not go simply because they lack information about financial aid options,” Jackson wrote.

Cal Grant is the nation’s largest state-funded college aid program. It provides up to $12,200 annually in tuition to UC schools and about $6,000 in tuition to CSU (Cal Grant A) to low- and middle-income students and $1,500 in books and non-tuition assistance to low-income community college and four-year college students (Cal Grant B). To receive a Cal Grant, high school seniors must complete FAFSA and send their GPA and proof of high school graduation to the California Student Aid Commission. Students in families of four with incomes above $83,100 don’t qualify for a Cal Grant A.

Some districts, including Los Angeles Unified, the study said, provide this information directly to the commission. Thirteen districts are participating in a pilot program in which the U.S. Department of Education notifies them which students have completed FAFSA, so they can follow up and help out families.  The completion rate for Cal Grants in those districts is 10 percentage points higher than average. (See list of California districts in the federal pilot project.)

In California, 54 percent of seniors complete FAFSA and 50 percent complete the Cal Grant applications – about on par with other states, the study said. Counselors in California, with the lowest ratio of counselors to students in the nation, are stretched thin.

But, as the Ed Trust-West study discovered, completion rates in the top 100 schools range from 70 percent to 90-plus percent. Fresno Unified, with several comprehensive high schools on the list, makes it a priority. Long Beach Unified has taken it one step further. As part of its Long Beach Promise, which guarantees qualified students admission to CSU Long Beach and a semester of free tuition to Long Beach City College, all students must pledge to fill out the FAFSA and Cal Grant applications.

Ed Trust-West’s report coincidentally was published on Feb. 28. The annual deadline for submitting FAFSA information to the federal government is tomorrow, March 2.

Filed under: College & Careers, Community Colleges

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10 Responses to “Pursuit of college financial aid varies widely among high schools”

  1. Paul said

    on March 2, 2013 at 12:05 am

    Manuel, I agree completely that the sharp increases in tuition have become a deterrent. Nevertheless, students in California still have the option of two tuition-free years (Board of Governors or BOG Waiver) in community college, followed by a guaranteed, pre-arranged transfer to certain California State University campuses.

    In the private university arena, tuition and living expenses surpassed the federal financial aid borrowing limit early in the new millennium. The nation faces serious policy questions about higher education affordability, and about how the costs should be distributed. Europe might provide a model, although I very much doubt that Americans would endorse the overt classism of the French “grandes ecoles”, or be willing to nationalize private universities.

    el, I don’t understand why you would make fun of my comment. I am not a neo-conservative. I was saying that, if the student wants to go to college, the student should use modern resources like the Internet to find out about financing options. The fact is that the information is easier to access today than at any other time in the history of the federal financial aid program. I don’t know whether you are a teacher, but I am, and the young people I teach are very good at finding and downloading free copies of the latest song, of checking their friends’ Facebook pages, of publishing “tweets”, and so on. The same skills can be used to profitable ends.

    I realize that one’s parent or parents must provide information on the FAFSA. Of the members of a hypothetical migrant farmworker family, the student is best-positioned to understand the FAFSA, and can ask his or her parents for pay stubs or tax returns. There will be a few exceptional cases, where one or both parents have abandoned the student, or where the parents are paid on a cash basis or don’t follow the law and file income tax returns. I don’t know what a high school guidance counselor could possibly do in such extreme cases. He or she couldn’t manufacture information that simply wasn’t available.

    It is naive to believe that the State could assure universal dissemination of financial aid information and a 100% application rate. Those who would place so much confidence in the public school finance system (which provides scant funding for guidance services), in the public schools themselves (not uniformly successful in moving students toward higher education) and in guidance counselors (humans, and thus imperfect) will be waiting a long, long time for matters to change. A student who is determined to go to college must count on himself/herself.

    • Manuel replied

      on March 6, 2013 at 9:28 am

      Thank you, Paul, for your measured response. And, yes, what you write “makes sense.” But how many of our fellow citizens do what makes sense, especially when they are in their teens and still officially dependent on their parents for everything?

      I remember when the financial aid system was abused by many who declared themselves independent after one year and were then able to get financial aid. That’s why the FAFSA and the federal requirement that parents be “responsible” for a their “children” education until the age of 24.

      But this has led to considerable problems because 1) there is a “tradition” of cutting the kid loose at 18, 2) there is a taboo about discussing earnings with your children, 3) there is a push to send everyone to a four-year college even though we know there are not enough seats or enough money to do so and 4) there are plenty of “colleges” out there out to make a buck on the financial aid trough.

      When it is all said and done, the amount of information available through the Intertubes is not enough to pay for college. Yes, the two-year-JC route in California is there as it has since the Master Plan was put in place. Yet, today, it is extremely difficult to get the necessary classes to stick to that two year plan. Moreover, they are not teaching them they way they used to and very often are not able to compete as with those who went in as freshmen. Couple that with the financial aid mess, and I don’t think we should be surprised that many schools simply don’t send a high proportion of their graduates to four year colleges. This won’t change even if counseling were properly funded.

      Yes, I agree that some that can’t afford the traditional path will make it following the community college path and they may even find all the info they need through the Web. But it isn’t the same as claiming that most students could get all the information they need from college web pages and also successfully pay for college. Finding a particular mp3 through google is not the same as figuring out if college can be paid for. The odds are stacked and if we, as a society, want to change these odds, then we cannot simply tell students that they have to sink or swim. That hasn’t worked for the vast majority in the past and it will never work in the future.

  2. Manuel said

    on March 1, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Responsibility. What a wonderful concept.

    Back in 1985, the annual fees for a UCLA student were $1,292 and the total costs were $4,408. By 2000, they were $3,683 and $10,383. Right now, they are $12,686 and $31,902, respectively.

    For those same years, the minimum wage was $3.35 in 1985, $5.75 in 2000, and is now $8. Thus, a student working 50% all year and 100% over the summer could pay for an entire year’s college costs (which, btw, that’s how I got through). By 2000, that was just not possible. Today, no way in hell.

    Thus, when a student applies for college and realizes that they will have to go into a horrible debt hole, many of them simply throw in the towel. Why would they want to saddle themselves with $100k in debt for a college degree that may not even get them a $40k/year job?

    This is the real reason why so many don’t even bother to apply. I know that I would never have been able to go to college today, whether there was a guidance counselor or not (in my long ago case, there wasn’t).

    To say that many are not applying because of a lack of personal responsibility is simply misguided, at best, and a cruel joke at worst.

    • el replied

      on March 1, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Also in 1985, you could be pretty well assured that if you graduated in 4 years that you’d have paid about $20k and you could probably get a job that paid $30k. Today, you would probably need to go 5 years, pay around $150k… and you may or may not get a job that pays around $35k.

      There was a shift in the philosophy of financial aid at both public and private colleges. In the 80’s, the costs were kept low for all. At some point, a shift was made to raise the list price and then to provide more aid for those who needed it, with the idea of extracting more from “high income” families who “could afford $30k a year for college.” This makes the FAFSA critically important, far more than when most of us commenting were kids.

      Woe to students like some of my classmates, whose families did not/refused to fill out the FAFSA for their sophomore years, and in one case, where a parent moved without leaving a forwarding address.

  3. Gary Ravani said

    on March 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    El:

    Walking to school, uphill both ways, in the blazing sun? Really? How different your experience was from mine. We walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow! Needless to say we were all barefoot also.

    And we never wasted out time “texting our buddies,” we were far too busy reading Ayn Rand novels. In order to build our “initiative,” you understand.

    • navigio replied

      on March 1, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      Gary, sounds like you went to school with my father..though you left out the distance..

  4. Paul said

    on March 1, 2013 at 10:04 am

    This is an excuse-making study.

    When I applied to universities, there was no World-Wide Web, but I still managed to learn about financial aid and scholarships. Twenty years ago, one went to a bookstore or a public library. Though my high school guidance counselor and my parents were supportive, because I was the person who would be going to university, I considered it MY job to do the research and the legwork.

    Now that financial information is readily available on the Web, and that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be filled out online, I see no reason for high school guidance personnel to be involved. Students need to take responsibility for their own futures. Use your smart phone to research financial aid, instead of texting your buddies! If neither you nor your parent has a smart phone (almost impossible given the popularity of cash-based services like MetroPCS and the social status associated with cell phone ownership) or a computer (still possible), there are free computers in your school library and/or your local public library.

    Higher education — especially when subsidized — is for people of initiative, not for everyone.

    • el replied

      on March 1, 2013 at 10:18 am

      When I was a student, we had to walk up hill to school, in the blazing heat, both ways. /rollseyes

      One of the biggest problems for kids and the FAFSA is that they cannot do it themselves. Their parents have to do it. And the challenge of filling it out is quite a bit different if your parents are middle class, W-2 earners than if say your parents are migrant laborers.

      Getting the FAFSA filled out and submitted can make all the difference – and the counselors who bust their chops getting 100% (or nearly) submission rates at schools with substantial percentages of disadvantaged kids deserve heaploads of credit. Heaploads.

  5. el said

    on March 1, 2013 at 8:57 am

    It’s hard to understand how they chose to eliminate some schools from their list but include others with senior classes as small as 10.

    Nevertheless, I think this points to the importance of counselor support and time, time that has been dramatically cut from California schools. Having a staff member who can be persistent with students and families can make all the difference in success.

    • Carrie Hahnel replied

      on March 1, 2013 at 11:42 am

      Hi El: Thanks for your interest in our study. We included all public high schools (CDE code #66) in our study. This accounted for 90% of California high schools and 97% of 12th graders. We didn’t use school size as an exclusion or exclusion variable. Ultimately, we wanted the universe of selected schools to be as wide as possible, but we did leave out schools that CDE has coded as continuation or alternative schools because they tend to have different missions and may have complicated our analysis. Finally, some schools were excluded if we couldn’t match them up to FAFSA or Cal Grants data.

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