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Parent Raul Zuniga and his daughter Sandy, a senior at La Habra High in Orange County, receive help with financial aid forms from counselor Rosa Sanchez at a "Cash for College" workshop.

Imagine thousands of dollars were yours, free to use to take the next step in your career or to put toward housing or transportation. Seriously: free money to improve your life.

I bet you would only have one question: Where do I sign up?

California’s high school seniors were left to their own devices to answer that very question for years. Though affordability is the No. 1 concern among college applicants and their families, only about half of them successfully applied for financial aid, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars for college on the table every year — until now.

This summer, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a milestone policy change into law, ensuring that each year, entire classes of high school seniors will sit down to complete either the federal student aid, or FAFSA, form or a California Dream Act application, making a rule out of what used to be the exception — one districts should plan for now.

As a high school senior, I was that exception. I had planned for what I thought was the most ambitious post-secondary option available to me: our local community college. That is, until a guidance counselor, Ms. Hardy, pulled me into her office and informed me that I would be attending UC Santa Barbara.

I insisted that wasn’t possible — there was no way my family could afford that — but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She had me fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, something I had never heard of before. Because of my family’s income, I qualified for Pell and Cal grants — money I had had no idea that I was entitled to. And, just as she promised, I enrolled in UC Santa Barbara that fall, the first in my family on both sides to attend college. Earning a college degree wasn’t easy, but with financial aid, it was possible. My bachelor’s degree opened the door for a master’s degree, a Ph.D., and every professional opportunity since.

College does the same for many low-income students of color like me. California’s state colleges are not only premier institutions, but also boast some of the highest mobility rates in the country, meaning students who come from low-income families can attain greater financial stability as a result of having attended.

Yet that ladder to economic prosperity is out of reach for many of the students who would benefit most from it. One of the largest barriers to college enrollment for low-income students and students of color is affordability: precisely what federal and state financial aid is designed to address. But alarmingly, thousands of eligible low-income students and students of color attend high schools with some of the lowest financial aid application rates. This is especially harmful to Black students, whose average completion rates of these crucial applications lag behind the state average.

With thoughtful implementation, this can change. When Val Verde Unified School District Superintendent Mike McCormick discovered that his low-income students were not completing and submitting financial aid applications back in 2017, his district mobilized to change that. They provided an abundance of training to counselors and teachers. They marshaled their entire administrative staff to call students with outstanding applications. They answered questions from skeptical parents and walked kids through the forms question by question. Now, their high schools boast some of the highest financial aid application completion rates in California.

Thanks to this new policy, we could see the same for every high school in the state. But, just as was true at Val Verde, it will only work if school districts invest in training, support and resources for counselors and teachers.

The burden doesn’t have to — nor should it — fall entirely on high schools’ shoulders. The best practices we have today were pioneered by community-based organizations like BLU Educational Foundation. Not only are they models of financial aid application support that high schools should emulate, but as trusted community voices, they are invaluable service providers that high schools should seek out as partners. The same is true of local community colleges, which have an interest in ensuring their future students can afford to enroll. For high schools, the key to supporting students will be building bridges with the organizations in their communities who are already experts.

When I asked Superintendent McCormick why he was so invested in doing for his students what Ms. Hardy had done for me, he summed it up simply: “We spend 13 years dedicated to our students and their dreams for the future — why wouldn’t we spend one more hour?”

•••

Christopher J. Nellum, Ph.D., is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit education equity organization focused on educational justice and closing opportunity gaps in California, from preschool through college.

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  1. Martin Blythe 4 days ago4 days ago

    Well said. My observations and challenges: (1) many students don't want college and want trade schools or a gap year, and that's ok, although they then miss the help from us (teachers) when they do decide to enroll; (2) some students get accepted into the 4-year then panic and turn it down, opting for a 2-year and even then they may panic again and give that up; (3) the FAFSA is still annoyingly complicated, especially … Read More

    Well said. My observations and challenges: (1) many students don’t want college and want trade schools or a gap year, and that’s ok, although they then miss the help from us (teachers) when they do decide to enroll; (2) some students get accepted into the 4-year then panic and turn it down, opting for a 2-year and even then they may panic again and give that up; (3) the FAFSA is still annoyingly complicated, especially the parents’ part when some parents won’t help. Long story short: we should make community colleges free and have FAFSA/Cal Grant applications only for 4-year colleges.

    But, as students are thinking about college, we need to provide better in-person help at community colleges on a regular and rolling basis, not rely on college counselors alone, or online chatbots. We need college advisers and counselors who are proactive, not reactive and who don’t belittle students to the point where they feel diminished and rejected. My 2c.