Easing college finance fears

Pilot program helps students apply for aid

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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This is the time of year when college acceptance letters start rolling in, but many students who have taken the SATs and written their essays face one final hurdle in the process of getting into college: financial aid forms.

For some, that can mean the difference between getting accepted and getting to go.

Mindful of that, the Boston public schools are pushing to have every graduate of the class of 2011 complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a critical document in the dizzying array of loan and grant requests.

“We know that financial resources end up being a major reason why students don’t end up going to college,’’ said Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson. “We want to make sure that our students not only take the right courses but that they position themselves to be able to afford college’’ once accepted.

For Beryl Nyamunda, a senior at Brighton High School, filling out the financial aid forms was a struggle. Her father attended college in her parents’ native Kenya, so he was not familiar with the demands of the financial forms she needs for college.

When it came to such information as “about how much they have in their bank account or whatever, they didn’t really know those things off the top of their head,’’ Nyamunda said. “That was one of the questions where they didn’t write anything.’’

Full of holes, her paperwork probably would have been rejected if not for ACCESS, one of several local nonprofits that is partnering with the district to help students like Nyamunda and their parents complete the federal aid application, known as the FAFSA.

When her ACCESS counselor saw the blank spots, Nyamunda had to call her parents several times for the necessary information. “It took so long,’’ said the senior, who applied to eight colleges. But, she added, the extra set of eyes was a big help.

Last year, 57 percent of Boston high school seniors completed the aid application, according to the district. Hoping to boost that number to 100 percent, administrators have launched a series of free sessions to help families make sense of the application, which requires data from their income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, and mortgage figures, among other information.

This past weekend, the district kicked off its FAFSA for All initiative as part of its Parent University, held at Northeastern University. The aid workshops will continue this week and will be held throughout the city.

The seminars aim to help demystify the process for families that have historically faced the largest roadblocks: minority students and those who are from low-income households or are the first in their families to attend college. The initiative also aligns with Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s effort to stanch the flow of Boston public school students who drop out of college.

“The number one reason academically ready students don’t finish college is for financial reasons,’’ said Bob Giannino-Racine, executive director of ACCESS.

Nyamunda’s classmate at Brighton High School, Xiomara Smith, also benefited from the program. Smith, who is applying to seven schools, lives with a legal guardian, not a parent. But she said the financial aid process wasn’t as nerve-wracking as she thought it would be, mainly because of the assistance she got.

“Just the way you hear previous seniors talk about it, I thought it was going to be a whole bunch of papers and things,’’ she said. “Actually, it was pretty easy for me. It was pretty quick.’’

The Boston initiative is being supported by a US Department of Education pilot program that allows administrators to track which seniors have completed their forms. Boston is one of 20 districts nationwide receiving real-time data.

John Travers, the director of guidance at Brighton High School, said the process helps calm the worries over disclosure and offset what he calls “sticker shock.’’ As parents see how much they are expected to contribute toward the cost of college, he said, they think: ‘ “Oh, this is doable.’ A lack of understanding the process really hurts us.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at