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
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.
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.