As a college adviser, I spend a lot of my time searching for students to remind them of deadlines. From announcements to flyers to Instagram posts and personally-delivered messages, I’ve mentioned the FAFSA to my students in just about every way that I can think of. As the March 1 priority deadline has grown closer and closer, I realize that knowing that financial aid is important and actually applying are two very different things. Students have several hurdles to overcome before completing the college application process. For some, it may be motivation. For others, it’s the forgetful nature of the average high school student. For many of my students, it is the paralyzing thought of how to pay for college and the uncertainties and complications of completing the FAFSA that keep them from starting an application.
In my time at North Lenoir, I have seen a few common barriers that keep students from applying for aid. These range from the challenges of students living in non-traditional families, where legal guardianship is complicated, to students who are first-generation American, impacted by the FAFSA’s need for social security numbers that family members may not have, or may not be willing to provide. These are just two examples, but with the diversity of my students’ circumstances, all kinds of situations pop up. My job, my charge and my goal are to be ready for anything. This does not mean I know it all; it just means I am ready to empathize, research, and pivot at a moment’s notice to support.
As I mentioned, the most common concern I heard from my students, this year and last, was college affordability and fear of student debt. The stigma, misinformation, confusing messages, and anxiety all hit my students and parents constantly. In my first year, I quickly realized that these concerns were impacting college choice before applications were submitted. High-achieving students were undermatching because they were concerned about the cost of more selective 4-year institutions. Through parent nights, information sessions, and in-person meetings, I have heard families’ discouragement and frustration and worked to provide education and resources so that they can feel confident in their students’ post-secondary decisions, as well as their financial security. I try my hardest to always honor and respect the feelings of families and students, as I too remember my high school experience and the scary thoughts of “what’s next.”
At this point in the year, one-on-one meetings are my number one tactic for ensuring FAFSA completion. Classroom presentations happen, but there are many individual circumstances that warrant individual attention. The students and parents who have not submitted the FAFSA thus far are often the ones who have questions or who have complicated situations that require assistance. Outreach is not just a task to check off a list; it is necessary. For me, cold-calling parents is a great way to connect and offer my support. Last year, these calls led to a flood of one-on-one meetings for FAFSA assistance. It was a lot to navigate, but very much worth it. One-on-one meetings may seem like they’re just part of our job or they’re a means to an end for us; however, they can be really impactful for our students and their families.
Financial aid and college affordability are hugely important to our students, and completing the FAFSA may be what ultimately allows them to pursue post-secondary education. I was reminded of this at last year’s graduation when I was invited to take a picture with not only my student but her parents as well. We had worked through the FAFSA application, FAFSA verification, RDS appeals, and countless applications together over the course of several months. I was truly moved and excited to be included when they documented a family memory. As the first in her family to attend college, she was fulfilling one part of the American Dream her parents came to this country to achieve. I’m thrilled to say that she is thriving in college and preparing to apply to nursing school next year.
Since the FAFSA doesn’t open until October, it’s usually not the first thing on a student’s mind when they consider their application to-do list. However, as advisers, we have to keep financial aid and scholarships at the forefront, especially in the spring, so that we continue to encourage and support students to the March 1 priority deadline and beyond. I tell my students that they have three big tasks to complete before I will consider them 100% through with the application process: RDS, applications, and FAFSA. While the FAFSA may come last, it is certainly not least.