Parent Student

Financial Aid: What is it? How to apply?

Vania Silva

Masters Student, School Counseling, San Diego State University

What is Financial Aid? 

Financial aid is money meant to help students pay for college. Financial aid can come from various sources: federal government, state government, your college, or private sources. In order to see if you are eligible for federal financial aid, students must complete the official FAFSA application. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and is free to fill out and submit. Eligibility requirements for federal financial aid can be found here. FAFSA deadlines can be found here, but also make sure to ask your college for their deadlines to submit the FAFSA.The information and documents needed when filling out the FAFSA are listed here. You will then send the FAFSA to all colleges you applied to. They will use your FAFSA information to calculate the type of aid you are eligible for and how much you are eligible for- this will come to you as your financial aid award letter. This is also a yearly process, you will have to complete the FAFSA every year to continue to receive financial aid. 

What is an award letter?

Award letter example:

The award letter arrives around the time of your acceptance letter. It shows the Estimated Cost of Attendance for one year at your college. This is an estimate of how much one year at your college will cost taking into consideration various expenses such as tuition & fees, room & board, books and supplies, travel costs, and miscellaneous items. It then breaks down the type of aid you will receive that year. In terms of aid, you may find loans, grants, scholarships, and federal work study. Aid is divided by semester or trimester, depending on which system calendar your school follows. Once you accept a college, you must go through and accept or decline aid. You can accept or decline each type of aid individually. The types of aid you may want to decline, if you are able, are loans since this is money that must be paid back with interest. 

Reasons why you may want to decline aid: 

  • If you have received outside scholarships (scholarships not listed on the financial aid award letter) to cover expenses 
  • You have a college savings account or financial support from family with which you are able to cover your expenses
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What is College Counseling Now?

By Laura Owen & Venus Israni

Executive Director, Center for Equity and Postsecondary Attainment, San Diego State University & Doctoral Candidate, Boston College, Higher Education

Never has it been more evident that our postsecondary pipeline and advising systems need a major overhaul. Students and adults have long noted that the support they desire falls woefully short, leaving too many without the guidance they deserve and need. School counselors are licensed, trained and prepared to serve all students, yet they are consistently bereft of the resources necessary to meet the competing demands of their job. Magnified by an all consuming pandemic with emerging and competing areas of need (COVID-19, mental health, racial injustice and postsecondary planning), we can no longer continue to ignore this shortfall without being accomplices in maintaining this system that perpetuates inequitable postsecondary opportunities.

The past year has amplified the isolation so many of us have felt. None more so than graduate students who struggle under normal conditions to remain connected due to the nature of their programs and excessive time demands. 

Success at the doctoral level isn’t easy to come by with roughly half of students leaving their programs before graduation. Minoritized doctoral students are especially vulnerable. Managing several expectations and projects simultaneously is the norm we operate within, often without the institutional support we are in dire need of. In light of the events of this last year, I ask myself what will happen to us now and in the future, given that we are and have been overlooked in higher education? The seemingly endless bad news on so many different fronts has been crippling to say the least. The small moments I used to share with my peers (of color) on campus, which notably included processing hard realities seems so far away. I have noticed more and more instances where I struggle to catch my breath due to the sheer volume of all that has been transpiring. I have been trying to push myself forward while also coming to grips with a political system and nation that has continued to fall apart. I’ve lied awake worrying simultaneously about protecting my aging parents from COVID-19 and how I will get enough participants for my dissertation study. We matter and we need support.

Venus Israni, Doctoral Candidate, Boston College, Higher Education

K-12 students face similar concerns, attempting virtual, face-to-face and hybrid formats of school while also providing day care for younger siblings whose parents are working at essential jobs. School counselors are meeting with heartbroken students whose loved ones have contracted COVID-19 and, in some cases, passed on. Counselors are listening to the concerns of racially marginalized and isolated students who are just plain “done with everything” and have checked out. They are addressing the mental health concerns of parents and staff while doing everything in their power to ensure that the individualized needs of every student on their caseload are met. They are overseeing food distribution, helping with homelessness and collaborating with community partners to address an increasing set of needs. While the ground underneath them seems to shift every five minutes, school counselors are working with students who face increased academic struggles in the face of this new model of learning.

Under any other circumstances, each area of need would require 100% of a school counselor’s time, but that is not possible given the urgency and serious challenges that students and families are facing. All of these students’ needs must be addressed.  We cannot possibly recover from the damage this pandemic has inflicted without a thoughtfully designed plan to revise our comprehensive advising structures and policies.

Students and parents need responsive and informed guidance that is adaptable to the daily disruptions and competing challenges from this pandemic. They need College Counseling Now.

College Counseling Now Campaign

The College Counseling Now campaign will address the four intersecting pandemics and more specifically, respond to what many are referring to as COVID-19 melt, where academically-qualified students are choosing not to attend or return to college. We will look at nontraditional pathways that connect students to real opportunities for high-wage, high demand jobs. 

Recognizing that there are many people who work towards helping students navigate their post high school options, the #CollegeCounselingNow campaign will engage and bring together all partners (students, parents, guardians, K-12 educators, higher ed. partners, community based organizations, school counselors, graduate students, counselor educators and researchers) to respond to the clarion call for creative, decisive, and equity focused solutions. 

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Back to Basics

By Karen Arnold

Associate Professor, Educational Leadership & Higher Education, Boston College

When my daughter was 14, I asked her whether she thought she might like to go to college at the university where I taught. She had been to my campus countless times by then, most often to the School of Education where my office and classrooms were located. My daughter answered that she wouldn’t choose to attend my college because it was too small. With some surprise, I told her that we had 14,000 enrolled students. Her reply: “How do they fit them in that building?” 

I was taken aback that my daughter hadn’t realized that the entire campus was part of the university. I’d never really told her exactly what a university was, though. I guess I thought that she –that anyone—would just know that. 

So imagine the assumptions and misperceptions of high school students who do not grow up visiting college campuses with their professor parent. Indeed, in my role as a researcher of college access, I have come across innumerable instances of similar disconnects between what we educators assume students know and what they actually know:

“I’m not interested in liberal arts. I’m not liberal and I don’t want to study art!”

“What is a passing score on the SAT?”

“I don’t know what I want for my career, so I can’t start college yet.”

“This college costs $60,000—there is no way I can afford that!”

“The FAFSA gets you scholarships, right?”

Why in the world should we expect a 16- or 17-year-old to know unwritten yet crucial terms and concepts like the definition of liberal arts, the difference between sticker price and cost, or the components of financial aid? How would they know why it might matter that institutions are public, private, for-profit, in-state, or out-of-state? And what does it mean for college counseling to stop assuming such common understandings?

It means that we need to communicate and unpack basic information about higher education and about every other aspect of the college choice, application, and financial aid process. We need to “pressure test” students’ understanding of this information. It means avoiding the term “financial aid” until and unless we’re sure students understand that assistance in paying for college comes from a combination of family contribution, grants, loans, work, and scholarships and what each of these represents. Above all, it means checking ourselves for what we assume “everyone” knows. 

CBO Counselor Educator Higher Ed K-12 School Counselor

Forget the College Counseling Timeline- What Do We Do Now?

By Kathy Chau Rohn

Doctoral Student, Educational Leadership & Higher Education, Boston College

2020 brought both new challenges and shed light on the same problems we’ve experienced in the field of college counseling for years. 

In “normal” times, we, school and college counselors, often use variations of the same college application checklist with our students. The usual items are on there: (re)take the SATs or ACTs, finalize college lists, discuss options with family, write a personal statement, visit colleges, complete the Common Application, request fee waivers, submit the FAFSA, and the list goes on. The format of the checklist itself implies that the college process is linear–a neat laundry list of discrete tasks that we can help students check off, in order, one by one. We give presentations based on where students “should” be on the college timeline. Yet, as many of us experience, especially now as we navigate through the challenges of COVID-19, counseling students through the college process is far from simple or perfectly chronological. Students are at different places, at different times, at every juncture. Part of the problem is that we only have the capacity to do so much given the resources we have and the systems we operate within. And, part of the problem is that the tools we use follow an overly simplified checklist approach that does not work for all counselors, families, or students and certainly does not work in the context of 2020. So, how can we start college counseling off the timeline?

Based on a nationwide text-message college advising campaign for 35,000 students, a team of practitioners and researchers from K-12 and higher education began to identify the parts of the college application process that do not occur once, but continue to emerge and re-emerge. We realized that we needed a more realistic and dynamic representation of the college process. To that end, we are creating and evolving an interactive “timeline” that captures the non-linear messiness of the college counseling process. As we hear from counselors, students, and parents about their concerns and challenges during this unprecedented year, we will update this new “timeline” in part 2 of this blog post to help counselors reimagine when and how they provide information and support to their students. Stay tuned and send us your ideas and feedback!

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Rethinking College Advising During A Pandemic

By Laura Owen

Executive Director, Center for Equity and Postsecondary Attainment, San Diego State University

Billions of dollars have been spent and countless efforts employed to close college opportunity gaps and while we have witnessed encouraging trends to provide more equitable access, the pandemic is rolling back the clock, wiping out many of the gains that have been made and exposing the systemic educational failures that got us here in the first place. We can sit back and watch the process unfold or we can acknowledge our mistakes and devote our energy to create a new equity centered, antiracist advising and counseling system that more intentionally serves all students.

Current Enrollment Trends

A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center confirms startling college enrollment declines. While high school graduation rates remained stable for the class of 2020, postsecondary enrollment decreased by 21.7 percent nationally and direct high school to college attendance for students from high poverty schools fell by 32.6 percent versus 16.4 percent for low poverty schools. Students attending high minority schools saw attendance decrease by 26.4 percent, while those enrolled in low minority schools witnessed an 18 percent decline. If that news were not alarming enough, early indicators predict a continued downward enrollment trajectory with even more discernible losses ahead. Common App recently shared college application rates are down by 8 percent for first time applicants and applications from students who are first in their family to attend college and those utilizing fee waivers decreased by 16 percent.

The Challenge Before Us

The events of this past year have only added to the complexities that students face in traversing their educational path, one that has long been riddled with roadblocks and obstacles. While school leaders have worked heroically to respond to the challenges brought on by the novel Covid-19 pandemic, college advising has unsurprisingly taken a back seat due to the many urgent and pressing needs that school staff have been juggling. This has forced students to wait patiently for guidance as shifting deadlines and polices have become the actuality.

Parents have agonized over how to best help their child carve out a viable post high school plan. One friend recently shared that he didn’t want to pay college tuition for his daughter to be two doors down, sitting on her bed and taking classes on her computer all day.  Another wished her son could experience all that college has to offer, including living on campus; so, ultimately, he decided to take a gap year. Other families made decisions to move forward as planned and students enrolled and completed their first semester of college, albeit not as they had expected. 

Students and parents are frustrated and stymied by a quickly changing landscape coupled with misinformation. They are looking to school counselors and college advisors for responsive and informed postsecondary guidance that is malleable to the daily disruptions and competing demands – they need College Counseling Now.

College Counseling Now Campaign

The College Counseling Now campaign will elevate and broadcast what is working. We will identify the mechanisms that influence postsecondary opportunity and expose how each piece, no matter how seemingly big or small, impacts everything else around it. 

As the saying goes, “it takes a village”. The College Counseling Now campaign will bring together students, parents, guardians, K-12 educators, higher education partners, community-based organizations, school counselors, district school counseling directors/supervisors, graduate students, counselor educators and researchers to create a community of practice committed to strengthening postsecondary advising. Together we will respond to the clarion call for creative, decisive, and equity focused college counseling solutions. 

We will:

  • Elevate the voices of parents and students 
  • Identify counseling and advising practices that support equity, antiracism and justice
  • Share lessons learned from summer melt advising interventions
  • Work with higher ed, K-12, community partners and college access organizations to thought partner and brainstorm solutions. 
  • Develop college advising tools, resources, and training 
  • Utilize social media and virtual spaces to hold Twitter chats, conduct Facebook Live events, share Instagram infographics, publish blog posts, and host webinars 

Stay tuned for more information to get involved in the #CollegeCounselingNow campaign. We can do this together!