Preparing for College Financially and Academically

As millions of high school seniors (and their families) across New York City and the country anxiously await their college acceptance letters, a related issue is causing an equal amount of anxiety: how to pay for college.

Financial aid is designed to help those who need it most – particularly low-income and underserved families – but millions of students don’t receive the financial aid they need, often because they don’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) accurately or at all. That can mean the difference between going to college or not – a decision that could potentially be worth millions of dollars of income over the course of a lifetime.

There is more than $236 billion in financial aid available each year to help students and their families pay for college.  Completing the FAFSA accurately and on time gives families greater access to financial aid, including government grants, college scholarships, work study, and loans.

Most people understand why the FAFSA is important, but fewer understand how to fill it out effectively. To help families navigate this complicated form and increase opportunities for aid, the Center for New York City Affairs, a policy institute based at The New School, has partnered with the Capital One Foundation to develop FAFSA: The How-to Guide for High School Students (and the Adults Who Help Them). The guide is a practical tool to help families decode the application, debunk commonly perceived myths, and address typical stumbling blocks, particularly for low-income families.

FAFSA can be nuanced, complex, and a bit intimidating for anyone. We’ve discovered that many low-income students are filling out the FAFSA by themselves, with little help from family members, which often means that the form is not being completed properly or on time. These barriers can prevent students from receiving financial aid but, more importantly, it can hinder their chances of entering and completing college.

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, first-year college students who apply for federal student aid are 72 percent more likely to persist through college than their peers who are eligible for this aid but do not apply. Persistence is also a critical factor in college success across the board, as national statistics show that one in three college freshmen drop out of school in their first year because of financial, academic, and social pressures.
Access to financial aid should not be a roadblock to higher education for students from low-income backgrounds, particularly when numerous resources exist to help families understand the process. Tools like the FAFSA How-to Guide help families navigate the complicated process and provide tips for how to fill out the form accurately so it is processed quickly; how to handle sensitive personal financial information; and, how to provide income and residency information if parents do not file U.S. tax returns.

While the FAFSA How-to Guide is primarily designed to be a resource for students, it is also a useful training tool for high school guidance counselors and college counselors, teachers, volunteers, and nonprofit professionals who often serve as resources for college-related information. Likewise, FAFSA’s hotline (1-800-433-3243) and many other financial aid resources are available and should be utilized to help students and their families understand and complete the form.
The How-To Guide is the product of three years of research done by the Center for New York City Affairs on barriers that students and families face in getting to college. Students and families were often confused about certain questions on the FAFSA form, which requires detailed information about a family’s household and finances. Center researchers polled New York City schools and nonprofits to determine which parts of the FAFSA caused the most confusion—and then wrote the guide to answer those questions. New York City guidance counselors report that the guide’s simple and useful explanations have been very helpful for the students and families with whom they work.

By collaborating on the FAFSA How-to Guide, Capital One aims to help students across the city and particularly in Upper Manhattan, as well as encourage their ability to access and persist through college, by supporting the development of resources and collaborating with local schools and nonprofit organizations. Capital One partners with the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), one of New York City Outward Bound’s partner schools, Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) and Harlem RBI by providing financial and volunteer support to help students achieve their college goals. Last year, for example, the organization worked with the Heart of America Foundation to build a College Access Room to provide WHEELS’ students with a much needed space to research colleges and careers, study for standard entrance exams and complete college and financial aid applications.

Every child deserves an opportunity to make his or her college dream a reality. With resources like these, we can help students get one step closer.

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