The Power of Information

The Power of Information

Financial aid outreach programs help disadvantaged students dare to dream the impossible dream.

It's not uncommon for financial aid professionals to hear grumbling from parents who are upset about the price of a college education. Sticker shock is often alleviated, however, when families are made to understand that grants, scholarships, and loans can make paying for a college education easier and more affordable than ever. But for a significant segment of the population, the chance to pursue a degree never comes. Several studies have confirmed that these otherwise capable students often pass on even trying to get into college because they believe they could never afford it. The question is: Why does this disconnect persist?

Strangely enough, "We found that the people who had the greatest need for that information are the least likely to get it," explains Kathleen deLaski, chief communications officer for the Sallie Mae Fund (www.thesalliemaefund.org). In fact, a national study sponsored by the Fund last year brought that very issue into focus, confirming long-suspected notions about educational access. The national study, conducted with the help of Harris Interactive (www.harrisinteractive.com), "helped identify the extent of the information gap for people--largely minority and underprivileged--who choose not to go to college because they don't have the information about how to pay for it," deLaski says.

It's not strictly about race. It's that all low-income groups fail to understand that they can go to college. -Jim McCorkell, Admission Possible

In truth, 75 percent of young people who could have become college students indicated that they would have been more likely to attend an institution of higher education if they had received better information on financial aid. In addition, only about half of the potential students were even familiar with any financial aid options.

"We particularly identified the gap being largest with the Latino community," says deLaski.

The survey results are perhaps not surprising when one considers the growing Latino population in the United States. Recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov) indicate that a quarter of the nation's population will be of Latino origin by the year 2050. And earlier this year, the Sallie Mae Fund partnered with the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute (www.trpi.org) to conduct a follow-up study to delve deeper into the financial aid gap in order to identify who those students were and why they hadn't received critical financial aid information.

"College aspiration is high within the Latino community, but financial aid knowledge is the missing link," says Harry Pachon, president of TRPI.

According to the survey results, an astounding three out of four Latino young adults who are currently not in college said they might have changed their expectations had they known about financial assistance. And distressingly, a full half of all Latino parents and two out of five Latino young adults could not name a single source of financial aid for college attendance. "Their expectations," says Pachon, "are that college is just too expensive and out of reach for them."

Even more worrying, the study showed that two out of three Latino parents said they did not receive any information about college financial matters in the period when their children were between kindergarten and 12th grade. "At that critical time, when they have to begin to prepare for college, the parents are not getting the information they need," Pachon says. Not surprisingly, he adds, lack of "college knowledge" is associated with immigrant status, so a first-generation immigrant typically has less information about college financial matters than second- or third-generation immigrants.

"The survey confirms what we suspected all along about the barriers that Latinos face," notes Congressman Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Through his work on various congressional committees, and via his congressional Web site (menendez.house.gov), Menendez has made it one of his goals to help spread financial aid information to the Hispanic community. His site includes links to a wide variety of financial aid information, as well as help for finding aid sources and filling out FAFSA forms. As the first in his family to go to college, Menendez recalls how difficult and confusing the process was for him. Although he had been accepted to several Ivy League schools, he didn't think he could afford them, and instead went elsewhere. "I didn't have a sense of what that would mean," he says. "No one told me I was eligible for financial aid, and I didn't have access to information explaining all the loans, grants, and scholarships I was eligible to receive. If my parents and I had better access to information about financial aid at our fingertips, I would have had a world of options available that I knew nothing about."

The Sallie Mae Fund survey holds significance not just for the Latino community, but also for the entire nation, says Menendez. He points to the fact that although the Latino community is the fastest-growing minority group (accounting for half the nation's population growth in 2000 and 2003), college enrollment for Latino students has increased by only 5 percent over the past 20 years. Enrollment rates for students from the general population, however, have jumped by 17 percent.

"The nation's competitive future and the nation's educational future will increasingly depend on our community," says Menendez. "Look at the facts: As of 2000, nearly 71 percent of Hispanics over the age of 25 had never attended college. And just over 10 percent of Hispanics now have a college degree--much less than the national average of over 29 percent. We know we have challenges."

Addressing those challenges is behind the creation of several financial aid outreach programs, such as what Texas A&M University administrators call their "full-court press" approach.

Arnold Trejo, executive director of Financial Aid at the school, is a Latino on the front lines. "My job is to provide that information that seems to be in such short supply," he says. "We are seriously trying to provide a competitive workforce. It's not a matter of just being nice to Hispanic people; it's an economic issue. If we graduate more [Latino] people from colleges and universities, we will have people with more purchasing power for goods and services, and pay more into the tax coffers so that the rest of us won't have to pay so much."

But instead of doling out financial aid information from the ivory tower (where disadvantaged students are probably least likely to visit in the first place), Texas A&M is taking the information directly to where it is needed most.

"We've decided as an institution to open outreach centers for prospective students throughout the state of Texas," Trejos says, "and we're moving from a centralized financial aid operation to a decentralized financial aid operation. We're hiring six outreach financial aid advisors who will be strategically positioned throughout the state to go to the community instead of having the community come to us. We'll go wherever we're needed to provide that vital financial aid information. Information is the key. We feel that if we talk to the parents and convince them that Texas A&M is affordable, then the student will be more likely to come."

The school has also offered nearly 580 targeted scholarships for first-generation students. At $20,000 each--$5,000 a year for four years--the scholarships are enough to cover all tuition and fees at Texas A&M. The foundation of the program is the acknowledgement that Texas A&M is a land grant institution, created to serve the citizens of Texas. Texas A&M President Robert Gates believes the school needed to make a significant investment in the scholarships to fulfill that mission, says Trejos.

The outreach effort also includes working with Texas independent school districts to offer scholarships for all students, but particularly minorities and low-income families. "We are engaging high school superintendents to do outreach for us, because now they have money for scholarships," says Trejos. The superintendents work with teachers at various schools to identify the students who will most benefit from the scholarships.

The university's goal is to challenge the financial aid community to have even more outreach efforts, says Trejos. "Historically, the financial aid operation has put an emphasis on processing, rather than doing outreach," he explains. "I'm hoping that this new model can someday be emulated throughout the country. It's not rocket science; we just need to go out in the communities."

That's exactly what a homegrown effort in Minneapolis is creating--with remarkable success among its participants.

Admission Possible (www.admissionpossible.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping promising, low-income young people prepare for and earn admission to college. Yet, while program founder and Executive Director Jim McCorkell supports the results of the TRPI research concerning Latinos, he believes the financial aid information gap is part of a larger problem.

"I don't believe it's strictly about race. I think it's that all low-income groups fail to understand that they can go to college," he says. "One of the big mistakes that a lot of low-income kids make is that they can't imagine how the system of higher education works. I mean, we tell them they have to stay in school, do well, take the ACT and so on, and the last thing they find out from us is what it is going to cost them. So now, we're not trying to change the way financial aid works; we're trying to get them to see that there are ways to make it affordable."

The Admission Possible program works with large groups of immigrants from Africa, and a group of Asian students called Hmong (chiefly from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). Interestingly, Minnesota has the largest urban Hmong population in the U.S.

We'll go wherever we're needed to provide vital financial aid information. We need to convince parents that Texas A&M is affordable. -Arnold Trejo, Texas A&M

"In those families," says McCorkell, "the parents really have no reference point for the American system. They think the whole idea of applying to college and being able to afford it is crazy. It's beyond anything they've known before." And, although many of the colleges in the Twin Cities region produce their admissions and aid materials in Spanish, in Hmong, and in African languages, the information gap persists. "Lack of financial aid knowledge is a big obstacle that these kids and their families still have to overcome," he says.

To help surmount these challenges, Admission Possible has partnered with 10 public high schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. "We go in and identify low-income students who look like they would have the potential to make it to college--if they got some help," says McCorkell. Currently, about 400 students participate, beginning in their junior year of high school. McCorkell hopes that number will soon increase. The students agree to meet in groups of up to 15 of their peers, twice a week after school, for two years. McCorkell admits there are a number of programs throughout the country that claim some success with intensive weekend workshops, where students work through applications and other forms. "Our experience, however, is that for a low-income kid who wouldn't have gotten into college without some help, one weekend isn't going to do very much. You need to do a lot more." By the end of the program, which includes workshops and campus visits, students will have invested more than 320 hours of their time. In addition, program participants also perform community service in return for the assistance they receive.

The group atmosphere, says McCorkell, encourages a cohesiveness in which students support each other, especially when they are faced with occasional doubts. The curriculum focuses on SAT and ACT test preparation, and students receive intensive guidance in preparing college applications. But a key component of the program is help in identifying sources of financial aid.

"Right from the beginning of the program, in their junior year of high school, we start working with the students to communicate to them exactly what financial aid is," McCorkell says. "We explain that there is 'free money' in the form of grants, money in the form of loans to be paid back, and money you earn through work study. Our message to them is that there really are a lot of people in the world who want to see them make it to college, including the government, the community, private scholarship providers, and colleges and universities."

By their senior year, participants have completed a curriculum that walks them through the process of filling out the FAFSA forms correctly. "It's pretty easy--even when you know what you're doing--to make a mistake on the FASFA," says McCorkell. "We even help the parents who are having problems getting their taxes filled out."

Admission Possible has also developed relationships with a number of private scholarship providers in the Twin Cities area. The challenge of scholarship grantors, says McCorkell, is finding the best recipients for those dollars. Admission Possible helps make that task easier. "We can vouch for the students. We push the kids hard to be the best they can, and to apply for as many scholarships as possible." Although the program has only been around for a short time, for the most part the students are getting the scholarships they need. Last year, a remarkable 89 percent of the program participants earned admission to college.

"Our message to these kids is that the resources are out there, and if you work hard at it and apply all over the place, you can get the scholarships," says McCorkell.

One successful component of the program has been using recent college graduates to deliver the services. More than 50 AmeriCorps and VISTA members work with the students (many of the college graduates are disadvantaged and/or minority members and have personally experienced the struggle of making it to college). Certainly, the challenges of working with disadvantaged inner-city youth in such a program can quickly lead to burnout. But, McCorkell believes, "We are able to attract these young, idealistic people who bring so much energy and passion to this issue, and that seems to be a really powerful way to deliver the services. They're young enough that the kids really look up to them and trust them."

As the program matures, he says, the goal is eventually to have the "alumni" come back and deliver the services themselves.

And what of the organization that first championed closing the financial aid information gap? As one might expect, the Sallie Mae Fund has a number of outreach initiatives, which are being expanded to help raise awareness of financial aid and tailor financial assistance toward educational access for underprivileged young people. For example, the Fund will host 40 of its 135 "Paying for College" workshops in Spanish this fall, as part of a 20-city bus tour targeting major Latino population centers. In addition to the workshops, the program will include a variety of community outreach initiatives.

About 400 Minneapolis-St. Paul lower-income high school students participate in the Admission Possible program, meeting twice a week after school, for two years of workshops and campus visits.

In an effort to get the information out, the Fund will also distribute free educational materials on financial aid, in English and Spanish, to middle and high school guidance counselors and teachers across the country, as well as to college financial aid officers. And, in partnership with the Hispanic College Fund (www.hispanicfund.org), the Sallie Mae Fund has allocated $500,000 in scholarships for Latinos who are the first in their family to pursue a college education.

TRPI's Pachon emphasizes that financial aid outreach matters for all cultures and for all economic levels. "In 23 of the 50 states, Latinos outnumber Asian-Americans or African-Americans," he says, "but this is not just an issue for the Hispanic community, it's an issue for all America."


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