Aalijahri Robinson, 18, found out about financial aid for college while she was a senior at Rusdale Continuation High School, located in East Oakland. The Oakland native hoped to attend college in California, but with unanswered questions about her Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) application and long lines at her financial aid office at school, she ultimately decided not to file her forms last March.
“I was just discouraged,” said Robinson. She said her high school did bring in people to help show students how to file for the federal college aid program, but it wasn’t enough. “I was confused and there was no one you can call,” she said. “It’s hard to contact someone. A lot of people don’t always have people to help them.”
As the price tag for college continues to rise, federal tuition assistance is critical for many students. In California, public universities have the fastest-rising tuition rate, according to a study released by the U.S Department of Education last June. In the 2012-2013 school year, the average cost of annual tuition ranged from $3,131 to attend a public two-year institution to $29,056 for a private 4-year institution according to the College Board, an organization that administers standardized tests used in college admissions.
But despite the rising cost of college, a recent study done by the Oakland-based advocacy group Education Trust-West found that many of California’s high school seniors are not taking advantage of the federal student aid program.
According to the study, statewide, only 54 percent of high school seniors in public school completed their FASFA applications, which are used to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid from the federal government. Aid can come in the form of grants and loans or through work-study, a program that allows students to earn money through part-time work on campus.
Only a handful of states have done similar studies, but so far California’s completion rate is similar to Colorado’s (48 percent) and Illinois’ (59 percent), according to the Education Trust-West report.
The study also broke down the FAFSA completion rate by schools and districts in California. In the Oakland Unified School District, the study found that 55 percent of high school seniors completed FAFSA applications for the 2012-2013 school year.
The completion rate ranged from a 38 percent rate at Coliseum College Prep Academy, to a 55 percent completion rate at Oakland High, a 64 percent completion rate from Oakland Tech and a 56 percent completion rate at Skyline High. The latter two campuses are located in North Oakland while the first two are in East Oakland.
The study also looked at completion rates for the Cal Grant program, which is a state financial aid program that provides aid to California undergraduates. The grant awards students up to $12,192 a year which could be applied to living expenses. The study found only 50 percent of high schools seniors in the state completed their application for these grants.
The U.S. Department of Education begins to accept FAFSA applications on January 1 for the upcoming school year and requires students to answer questions about their financial assets, income and dependency status. Once this is submitted, the numbers are then calculated using a formula that determines the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which an estimate of the student’s—or their parents’—ability to contribute to their college expenses. Some schools use FAFSA to determine eligibility for school aid. For every year a student is school, they are required to fill out their FAFSA forms again.
But some students find the process so confusing that they miss deadlines or never finish their applications. “It’s a complicated piece,” said Jasmine Martinez, assistant to the site director at College Track, a national non-profit organization that helps students in underserved areas to get into college. “Even with us there, we have to break it down for students and for parents. I think that’s the biggest issue—it’s complicated.”
Orville Jackson, author of the report and the senior research analyst at the Education Trust–West, said in a phone interview that the study was conducted based on 2012-2013 FAFSA completion rate data that was released online by the U.S. Department of Education for the first time this year.
“Our analysis suggests that thousands of academically qualified, low-income students are losing out on their college dreams because they weren’t given the information and encouragement they needed to fill out a financial aid application,” Jackson wrote in a statement released by the group.
The study found that students attending schools in the state’s lowest income areas were no more likely to apply for aid than students attending other schools. “This is not to say that applications rates were similar across all schools: Some students, including many who are low-income, attend high schools where applying for financial aid is the norm,” the study concluded. “These diverse schools have a number of best practices in common: They closely monitor students’ completion of financial aid; support parents and students in completing their applications; and effectively communicate with families about the application process.”
The study recommends that school districts should broaden communication with schools and students about the importance of financial aid.
Some local organizations have specifically dedicated events to educate the public about FAFSA. According to Martinez, a College Track program that devotes one full day to helping parents and students to fill out the form has helped 41 Oakland high school seniors this year with their FAFSA applications.
At the East Oakland Youth Development Center, an organization that helps young people prepare for jobs, college and leadership opportunities, three financial aid work shops were held earlier this year. The workshops featured a Financial Aid 101 session that addressed financial aid questions from parents, free tax preparation that helped parents of college-bound student file their taxes so students could apply for aid, and a FAFSA Festival that allowed students to apply for cash for college. The center also has a FAFSA phone bank that calls high school seniors to remind them of the application deadline.
Completing a financial aid application “can be overwhelming for the first time,” said Jasmine Thompson, pathway to college coordinator at the East Oakland Youth Development Center. But, she says, thanks to their programs, “I think we created a buzz around the college-going process.”