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2014 September 16 - 05:07 am

It Takes A Village

San Antonio Collaborates To Link Latino Students to Financial Aid



When it comes to helping Latino students in San Antonio attend and complete college, it takes a village.

The Texas city — with a population of 1.4 million people, it’s seventh-largest city in the country and the second-largest in Texas — is in the fourth-year of a groundbreaking community-wide drive with an ambitious goal: by 2020, 50 percent of the city’s adult population will have some kind of college credential.

With a 72 percent Latino population, San Antonio is the largest majority-Latino city in the country. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there remains a 20 percent degree completion gap between Latino adults and the overall population of the city.

It was in 2010 that the city launched a broad-based strategic planning process. Surveys showed that city residents overwhelmingly identified education as the city’s top priority. Without an educated workforce, residents and policymakers concluded, the city could not compete for high-quality jobs and strengthen its economy.

At about the same time, then-Mayor Julian Castro — who took over U.S. secretary of the Housing and Urban Development in July — launched cafécollege, a one-stop clearinghouse of information, resources and experts to assist prospective students in pursuing a college degree.

In 2011, with help from the Lumina Foundation, the city started the Diplomás Project. Lumina is investing $11.5 million in 11 states in its Latino Student Success initiative. The San Antonio Education Partnership received $600,000 over four years to lead a citywide collaboration to dramatically improve Latino college completion rates.

The project has a goal of increasing Latino postsecondary completion rates by 9 percent by the summer of 2015. Partners in the effort include four area school districts, Alamo Colleges and the University of Texas at San Antonio, businesses and chambers of commerce.

Stakeholders in the college completion initiative soon came to realize that none of their goals would be realized unless Latino and other underrepresented populations had better access to student financial aid. Armed with evidence showing that students who have more information about financial aid and get help in filling out financial aid applications are more likely to enroll in college and receive financial aid.

Thus was created a comprehensive, citywide effort to remove financial aid barriers to college enrollment and attainment.

Noé C. Ortiz, a financial aid administrator at Alamo Colleges, and Eyra A. Pérez, former head of the San Antonio Educational Partnership and now an educational consultant, wrote a two-year case study for the Washington-based advocacy group Excelenica in Education.

The financial aid initiative is made up of three components: Student Aid Saturdays, which offers free guidance and assistance in filling out financial aid applications; Financial Aid Curriculum for High School Students, which teaches high school students enrolled in economics classes how to pay for college; and the Financial Aid Council of San Antonio, which brings together financial aid adminstrators from San Antonio colleges and universities to provide expertise, resources and advocacy.

Excelencia hopes that San Antonio’s experience can help other communities boost college attendance and completion rates among Latinos.

“We hope our work with communities will give us a better policy approach,” said Deborah Santiago, the group’s chief operating officer and vice president for policy.

“We know that financial aid is the absolutely critical point for all students, but especially for Latino students.”

Ortiz said San Antonio demonstrates how a community can work across different sectors and institutions to remove financial aid as a barrier to postsecondary education.

“What we are trying to do as a community is make sure that the neediest students are the ones getting this most aid,” Ortiz said said. “A lot of studies say that is not happening. In San Antonio, financial aid is everybody’s responsibility.”

The Student Aid Saturdays, held at cafécollege and on the campuses of Alamo College, are yielding some positive results. In 2012, the first year of the initiative, a total of 981 students received one-on-one assistance in completing FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The overall FAFSA completion rate was 52 percent, a 2 percent increase from the year before.

In 2013, some 1,078 students received one-on-one help, and the FAFSA completion rate climbed to 57 percent. The ultimate goal is 100 percent, Pérez said.

The importance of filling out FAFSA – especially among first-generation college students – is clear. It determines eligibility for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants and students loans. It is also used to determine eligibility for state financial aid programs and institutional aid. Every year, more than 20 million students fill out a FAFSA.

But completing the form can be a daunting task. It includes 108 questions. To complete the form, students need a long list of financial information, including details on assets, investments and taxable and non taxable income, both for themselves and their parents. If the student is a dependent, parental information must be included. To calculate a family’s expected contribution, the FAFSA seeks information about a student’s household: how many people in the family and how many children are already in college.

The form must be filled out every year.

Students must maintain satisfactory academic progress respond to inquiries should the FAFSA be flagged for verification.

The FAFSA is renowned for not being user-friendly. Errors in filling it out can have serious consequences, such as receiving no financial aid or a reduced award.

“The FAFSA form is overwhelming for some students,” Ortiz said. “A lot of times, these kids are the first in their family to attend college. They don’t have that support system. They are bewildered, and some don’t complete it.”

Student Aid Saturdays has trained 500 volunteers to help students fill out the form. Meanwhile, Ortiz and Pérez have developed a curriculum that teaches high school students how to pay for college.

It’s the result of a law passed by the Texas Legislature and is now being piloted in the San Antonio Independent School District. The four school districts involved in the Latino student success effort and Diplomás have adopted the curriculum as a key strategy in their college and career readiness plans. Some local school districts are contemplating requiring high school students to fill out the form.

“When the state mandated this, there was no real guidance from the state,” Perez said. “There was no day-to-day curriculum. The school districts were out there to do it themselves. We were very excited to help.”

Ortiz, Pérez and others hope that their efforts will create a college-going culture among Latinos in San Antonio. That can be a difficult task. Many Latino families simply can’t afford to send their children to college. Once students graduate from high school, many are expected to get a job and contribute to their family’s expenses.

“It’s not about not valuing education,” Pérez said. “It’s a matter for going through what you go through every day. It’s about surviving this week.”

“It can be very difficult for first-generation students and their families. It’s our job to tell them what needs to happen. All of our partners have helped us step up.”

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