Benjamin Franklin once said, “Out of adversity lies opportunity.” Today, many opportunities have arisen to help needy students pay for college. America offers a vast array of higher learning institutions, catering to students with different aptitudes, abilities and interests. Yet with all that is offered, the doors have been closed to many students who are willing to put in the work but are unable—or think they are unable—to afford a college education. In some cases, negative comments lead them to believe college is unavailable to them. In others, they are told the family simply cannot afford it. The truth, however, is that anybody can further their education, whether it be at a four-year university, a two-year community college or a one-year trade school.
Significant progress has been made just by simplifying the FAFSA, the form used to calculate how much a family “should be” able to contribute toward the annual costs of college. The FAFSA, however, is only a small piece of a process that bases its calculations on averages, not on real-world circumstances. Such things as consumer debt, health care costs, child care, family abandonment and parental incarceration are not factored into the formulas.
Adding to the problem, many high school guidance counselors are facing shrinking school budgets and a larger number of college-seeking students to support. Consequently, many students are left to navigate the financial aid process on their own. Uninformed or mistrustful parents are often unwilling to share their personal information with the student or counselor. Students or parents also may be embarrassed by their financial situation, especially those collecting welfare. The process can be further complicated by language barriers or unresolved domestic problems, or even something as simple as the student not having a Social Security number.
To overcome these obstacles, overtaxed guidance counselors should not be afraid to turn to qualified outsiders, such as financial aid professionals, to fill the information gap. These outsiders may be more familiar with a specific culture or language or might be able to provide additional mentoring and support for the student and their family. The ultimate goal is to provide students with the tools and information they need to further their education. Without that support, students may find themselves accepted into a school they are ill-prepared for and which will eventually leave them with no degree and a hefty loan balance.
Guidance counselors can prevent such outcomes by steering students toward two-year colleges, which may be more affordable and better suited to the student’s academic needs. Counselors also should pay additional attention to their most at-risk students; those that have high financial need, non-English-speaking parents or that simply require more time to mature as students. The job isn’t over once the student steps foot on a college campus, either. Counselors should be following up with their former students, at least for a year, and keeping statistics about their dropout rates to identify any recurring problems.
The obligation for improving the financial aid process does not rest with high school guidance counselors alone, of course. College financial aid offices are a critical resource. Unfortunately, high turnover in these offices sometimes results in the office providing erroneous information that negatively impacts a student’s financial aid award. Financial aid offices often promote from within, but do not always provide the necessary supervisory training for employees whom they believe already “know the system.” These offices must recommit to excellent customer service, with the customer being the student. They should slow down and listen to students and parents, guiding them through the intricacies of financial aid forms. When dealing with international students or those with language barriers, exceptional customer service should mean having translators on hand if necessary. Embracing high-need students, showing empathy and instilling trust are just as important as awarding financial aid.
These are but a few of the many ways to meet the demands of needy students. As George Washington Carver once said, “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” D
— Howard Freedman is president of Financial Aid Consulting and has been writing about financial aid issues for more than 25 years.