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It takes more than a village: need-based aid to diversity students needs more than lip service; it needs outreach.

THREE YEARS AGO, IF MY SON HAD TO FILL OUT ALL OF THE financial forms needed for financial aid consideration, that aid simply would not have happened. No grant, no federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, no nothin'. If he had been responsible merely for tracking the deadlines on the school financial aid applications and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), it would not have happened. If he had been solely responsible for finding out what was needed, in order to apply for aid to each school, the state, and the federal government, it most likely would not have happened. If it had been up to him to hunt for state, federal, local, private, and corporate scholarships, it probably wouldn't have happened. If he alone had to track down all of the paperwork--tax returns, pay stubs, mortgage information, etc., it would not have happened. The same can be said of my daughter, when she was applying to schools a Few years earlier. Sure, she scrounged for local scholarships, and introduced me to the FAFSA. But at 17, she, too, was not capable of scaling the financial aid mount on her own.

As it turned out, it took all of us, each and every family member--not to mention high school, college, and Financial aid counselors; extended family members and friends who had already been through the ordeal with their own children; and an occasional morning talk-show host or evening news reporter--to find out about, research, apply, and meet deadlines for financial aid.

And we had the benefit of aggressive college marketing to both children, who had attended a public feeder school. And our family was riddled with upper-middle-class, white, college-educated professionals and executives. And the mother in this scenario (me) keeps detailed financial, legal, and household expense records for decades, all neatly filed in clearly marked month-by-month, year-by-year accordion file folders.

Yet still, we screwed up some deadlines and had to file the FAFSA twice before we got it right. So here's my question:

How is the diversity student (now professed by IHEs to be so desired) supposed to effectively apply for those need-based dollars? What if she attends a high school that does not attract aggressive college marketing? What if she is the first in her family, or one of the first, to set her sights on a postsecondary education? What if her family members are not financially savvy? What if they are daunted enough by a 1040, let alone a FAFSA? What if they've never filed a 1040? What if they are not English speaking? What if there is no one to explain that there is higher education money available? Or that the local technical school is not their only option?

It certainly was not surprising that a Lumina Foundation report ("Unequal Opportunity") released last year pointed to the alarming deficiencies in this area. Diversity students in much of the U.S. are often shut out of the aid process because it is elusive, daunting, and unrealistic for them--just as it is for many non-diversity students. Applying for financial aid is tantamount to filing an income tax return, but at least there is franchise income tax assistance in most U.S. cities. These local storefronts may not be the ultimate solution, but they are a working solution. With pay stubs, rent checks, a Fee in hand, and a series of "yes" or "no" answers to a counselor paid to run through a series of standard questions (and equipped with an IRS database to fill in the gaps), anyone can file a return.

Curiously enough, anyone with a number of education loans outstanding is also worthy of that kind of helpful attention--from the education loan consolidators. To get your business, consolidators will take the initiative to review your existing loans; contact you with loan programs with better terms; and then actually walk you through the entire consolidation process. How wonderfully proactive.

Right now, there are a handful of IHEs offering "personal" counselors to diversity (or any kinds of) students, to help them through the financial aid process during their years at the institution. And financial aid offices have always insisted they offer assistance to anyone who requests it. But it is not proactive to a broad base of potential diversity applicants. The large majority of diversity high school students in any given locale are not aware of their options, and certainly less aware of the many hoops they will have to jump through before they can qualify for the financial aid that may enable them to attend community, state, even private colleges and universities. Yes, schools are indeed having a hard time finding the dollars for the aid itself--not to mention dollars to pay for aggressive national, regional, and local marketing efforts to get the word out to diversity populations. But then again, some schools are actually moving need-based aid dollars into merit-aid dollars, as they insist they need diversity students.

Where are the teams of helpful people contacting potential diversity applicants, and assisting them with financial aid options and processes? It seems to me that such programs could be set up across U.S. campuses, with work-study students or student and local volunteers acting as "outreach" aid counselors. Until we see a change in the entire structure of the now unwieldy tuition discounting/ financial aid system, don't we at least need to start instituting some creative programs to back up diversity lip service?

You can reach Kathy Grayson at kgrayson@universitybusiness.com.
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Title Annotation:Editor's Note
Author:Grayson, Kathy
Publication:University Business
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:914
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