At the Fulfillment Fund, we give first-generation college students tools and knowledge about financial aid, to help them take their first steps on campus with less weight in their backpacks.
By Marcelino Plascencia
A college acceptance letter in a low-income household, where the high school senior is the first to go to college, creates mixed emotions for many families.
The college-bound student is breaking the cycle in their household by creating a bridge to higher education. At the age of 17 or 18, first-generation college students from under-resourced communities become role models to their siblings, extended family members, friends and neighbors.
One of the most exciting moments for high school seniors is announcing the college they are committing to attend in the fall. As the crowd awaits the answer to the big question, “Have you decided where you’re going to go?” students face the pressure of taking an invisible heavy backpack with their family’s hopes and dreams to college.
As the expectations arise of the student becoming a success story, the student faces the reality of not knowing if they will be able to afford their first or second choice. The moment of celebration and hope is accompanied by fear, anxiety, pressure, and disillusionment.
Understanding the Financial Aid Award Letter
In preparation for making one of the biggest decisions in their lives — choosing their new home for the next four to five years — the Fulfillment Fund College Access Program curriculum provides an in-class lesson for our high school seniors on the process of understanding their financial aid award letters. Prior to the lesson, students participate in Cash 4 College workshops provided by the Fulfillment Fund to help our families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the California Dream Act Application.
Students gain a detailed breakdown of the different awards in a college financial aid package, of the differences between direct and indirect cost, and after the presentation, students work in small groups to determine the best financial aid offer from the realistic mock letters and report back to the entire class.
Fulfillment Fund seniors learn to categorize their financial aid awards as “free money,” “work money,” and “loan money.” Most Fulfillment Fund students qualify for the Federal Pell Grant (free money), Cal Grant A or Cal Grant B (free money), Work-Study (work money), Direct Subsidized Loan (loan money) and Direct Unsubsidized Loan (loan money). Within the categories, our students understand the differences between federal grants and state grants, and the differences between the federal student loans — subsidized loans do not accrue interest while the student attends college and the unsubsidized loans accrue interest while attending college.
Our work with our students is not a one-time presentation and it is not completed after our in-class lessons. Embracing our approach of one student at a time, we have a one-on-one meeting with each student to discuss the best financial aid offer from all their letters and address their concerns with solutions. The lessons equip our students with the foundation for the work to come and with the tools for our students to apply.
Removing Financial Obstacles to College
Jerson, a senior at New Open World Academy, said the lesson provided background and “helped me build questions of my own. Our meeting helped me analyze my financial situation much better, at a personal level.”
According to a study conducted by NerdScholar, an estimated $396,401,205 in federal Pell Grant funding (free money) was left on the table in the 2013-14 academic year by California’s graduating class of 408,467 students, 64.62% of whom were eligible to apply for the funding.
Our goal at the Fulfillment Fund is for students to receive the maximum amounts of financial aid for which they're eligible, and our recent data shows 97% of Fulfillment Fund seniors in the class of 2015 completed FAFSA and California Dream Act application.
When our seniors are asked to share their biggest concern on transitioning to college, the majority state money — fearing student debt or insufficient funds. With an Expected Family Contribution of $0, students are offered up to $5,500 in federal student loans to cover the cost of attendance for one academic year. In a strategic effort to decrease the amount of student loans, Fulfillment Fund college counselors and College Access Program advisors assist students with their scholarship applications and in looking for alternatives — working on campus in a work-study job, opening a payment plan, and working full-time in the summer — and our scholarship department awarded roughly $100,000 for our class of 2015 with the intention to have the scholarships renew for up to four years.
Our goal is for students to understand their financial situation, feel confident about their decision and embrace their campus. After my one-on-one meeting with Jerson, he said, “Money is no longer a barrier when you examine it piece by piece.”
Giving students the tools and knowledge of how college financial aid works can help students take their first step on campus with less weight in their backpacks.