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Local advocates urge students to apply for college financial aid

Fast facts about FAFSA and the California DREAM Act Application

The Federal Application for Federal Student Aid is the application for federal grants, work-study, and loans. Students who are U.S. citizens, permanent residents or other qualifying nonresidents are eligible to use it.

The California DREAM Act allows undocumented students, DACA recipients (valid or expired), U-Visa holders and students under Temporary Protected Status to access certain other types of financial aid.

Students should only complete one of the applications (not both), according to the citizenship requirements.

Heidi Zaragoza felt like she was adrift during much of her junior year.

Stuck at home, logging onto her Zoom classes from her room and juggling a job in addition to school, Zaragoza said it was hard to think about future goals — like college, and how to pay for it.

“At some point, I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to apply to colleges or anything,” she said. But when she returned to campus for her senior year, support from her school counselor and her teachers helped her change her mindset, and she began submitting applications.

“I started thinking, I really got to do something with my life,” Zaragoza said. “I can’t just keep sitting around here doing the same thing because I’m going to get nowhere.”

Zaragoza wasn’t alone, though, in her hesitancy to apply for college or the financial aid that will help her to attend.

Student applications to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the California DREAM Act are down significantly in 2022, a trend that has some education leaders worried about a further decrease in enrollment in postsecondary education.

Even more concerning, the largest drop in financial aid applications is among seniors from lower-income families — meaning fewer of the students who need financial aid the most are on track to receive it for 2022.

“What this is showing really is an equity problem,” said Leonardo Rodriguez, a Mendocino College student who since November has served as a representative for his peers on the California Student Aid Commission. “And it can lead to a lot more inequalities in the future.”

Completion of associate and bachelor’s degrees is associated with higher earning potential throughout a person’s lifetime, with some caveats, due to the ever-increasing cost of that education. In particular, students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds take on greater risks of shouldering heavy debt burdens.

This is why, officials say, it’s critical that students don’t leave money they are eligible for on the table.

To be sure, students still have months left to submit applications. But for some scholarships, timing matters, as aid is distributed partially on a first-come, first served basis.

Additionally, the earlier you know what college options you can afford, the better you can plan, Rodriguez said.

Schools and community partners are brainstorming ways to encourage graduating seniors to keep their options open by not leaving money on the table.

“We were going in the right direction for so long, and now COVID has kind of dismantled that,” said Traci Lanier, vice president of external affairs at Bay Area nonprofit 10,000 Degrees. “We have to kind of restart with that message about why financial aid is important and why postsecondary education is important.”

College in the time of COVID

As of Feb. 1, FAFSA and DREAM Act applications from students reporting a dollar to $40,000 in personal or family income were lagging the most, according to the California Student Aid Commission.

The number — 415,973 applications — is down nearly 25% from 2021.

And across all income levels, applications are down 16% from last year.

Those decreases have advocates including Lanier “very, very concerned.”

School officials and others who work with students have several theories about what is driving the downturn in financial aid applications.

One factor is the level of uncertainty seniors from the current and past two graduating classes have faced when it comes to the pandemic and the future.

“There’s been so much change and uncertainty, and applying for college and financial aid — it’s like a stake in the future,” Lanier said. “How do you plan for next fall when all your plans in the last few weeks have been canceled?”

That uncertainty is heightened amid the economic pressures of the pandemic, even as hopes of federal intervention on student debt and college costs have failed to materialize.

First Lady Jill Biden, in a Feb. 7 speech to community college leaders, acknowledged that free community college will not make it into a social spending package Congress has struggled to pass for months. President Joe Biden’s campaign promises to ensure student debt forgiveness have also stalled.

All of those factors, Rodriguez believes, make his peers even more wary of taking on student loan debt.

“I think what every students is going through is a cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “And really, if students don’t even know how much financial aid is out there, they aren't able to make the decisions that are appropriate.”

Lack of understanding about available financial aid can most commonly hamper first-generation college students and those from non-English speaking households from applying. They face more obstacles to access resources that can guide them through the process, or clarify why applying matters.

Fast facts about FAFSA and the California DREAM Act Application

The Federal Application for Federal Student Aid is the application for federal grants, work-study, and loans. Students who are U.S. citizens, permanent residents or other qualifying nonresidents are eligible to use it.

The California DREAM Act allows undocumented students, DACA recipients (valid or expired), U-Visa holders and students under Temporary Protected Status to access certain other types of financial aid.

Students should only complete one of the applications (not both), according to the citizenship requirements.

“FAFSA is not an easy process to complete,” said Jenn Del Rosario, coordinator of community relations for Roseland Public Schools. “It’s complicated and cumbersome. Some of what you’re seeing is students are already overwhelmed, and having to complete a cumbersome process like that is one more thing on their plate.”

Still, local school officials and others are working to ensure language differences or prior experience with higher education are not barriers for more students.

A way forward

Maria Hernandez remembers what it was like to face the decisions of a high school senior. In 2015, she was in their shoes.

Now, as the virtual curriculum and engagement manager for 10,000 Degrees, she is engaged in the work of educating students on their financial aid options, and training school staff to similarly empower the families they serve.

“Families do play a huge role in the college exploration process and financial aid piece," Hernandez said. ”It makes a world of difference when our parents are involved.“

Since 2021, she has been in charge of arranging online events and workshops to help families learn more about FAFSA and the California DREAM Act.

Careful planning goes into those events so they can be as successful as possible, Hernandez said. They’re held in the evenings so parents are more likely to be able to attend. They offer materials in both Spanish and English — sometimes other languages if they can manage it.

A common refrain at the meetings: “It’s OK if you don’t know what you want to do,” Hernandez said.

“(But) in case you do figure out you want to pursue college,” she added, “...You’re going to need that financial aid.”

The California Student Aid Commission also offers free workshops, called Cash for College, which Rodriguez encouraged students to take advantage of.

“It’s scary and it feels like right now’s not the right time,” he said. But he urged graduating seniors or others considering a move to post-secondary education “to not give up on your dreams as a student, to be imaginative and also be purposeful about what you want to do and who you really want to become.

“That starts with applying for financial aid," he continued ”Knowing how much financial aid you receive and what position you are in to then be able to make those life-changing decisions.“

Next year’s application numbers will likely tell a different story, as a new law passed in 2021 goes into effect, which will require school districts to verify seniors have filled out the FAFSA and/or the DREAM Act application in order to graduate.

Similar laws passed in Lousiana and Texas have boosted application rates significantly.

For now, though, each member of the class of ‘22 will have to make their own choice about applying.

Zaragoza said she’s glad she did. And she expressed gratitude for the support that helped her complete the application.

She’s waiting to hear back from several schools, with her sights set on Sacramento State University. The school offers a degree in her area of choice.

“My overall motivation (for applying) was to get my bachelor’s degree in construction management,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of women being involved or working in engineering ... I want to be one of them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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