Friday, February 1, 2013

Where Form Precedes Function: The FAFSA

By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager.

Perhaps, like me, you spent part of your holidays reading the lengthy and heartbreaking New York Times article “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.” The story tracks three gifted, ambitious, and low-income students—Melissa, Bianca, and Angelica—from Galveston, Texas from their high school graduations through the fits and starts of their higher education experiences. At the end of four years, none of the young women have a college degree to show for the debt, stress, hard work, and disappointments they endured.

Myriad studies referenced throughout the article dig up some disturbing trends that this trio lived out: 
  • “Fewer than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of incomes even enroll in a four-year school. And among that group, fewer than half graduate.”
  • “The affluent enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials.”
  • “Low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26 percent of eighth graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.”
These discouraging statistics and trends could terrify even the greatest optimist—as long-term earnings potential is increasingly linked to post-secondary educational attainment, as college tuition skyrockets, as states are tying higher education funding to completion rates, and as the gap between income levels grows, how do we “fix” this?

What stood out to the most to me was that one of the biggest hurdles Angelica couldn’t overcome was gaining access to the extensive financial resources available to her as low-income, first-generation, and post-hurricane disaster-impacted student. Just filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) correctly was a daunting task. It will cost her and take many extra years to repay the loans she took out but wouldn’t have needed had her family’s income been reported accurately.

This is an area where one focused strategy—helping teens and families fill out that formidable FAFSA—can have a major impact in students’ preparation for and success in college. The Austin Chamber’s College Ready Now program has been tackling FAFSA for years through Financial Aid Saturdays across the region.

Another deliberate regional approach to college preparedness is the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP) Pathways to Success, a major initiative outlined in CVEP’s Economic Blueprint and implemented through the Career Pathways Initiative. (Market Street partnered with CVEP in 2009 to develop the five-year Economic Blueprint for the Coachella Valley region of southern California.) Check out a great interview by The Desert Sun this week with Cristina Gregorio, student support services coordinator for Pathways to Success. The hard and unglamorous work of getting those forms filled out accurately has paid off in a big way, largely due to having a plan, business and civic buy-in, engaged partners (especially those interacting with parents), and some serious performance metrics.