News: State Policy & Advocacy

All In for Financial Aid: Doing More Than Just Talking About Equity

Thursday, April 25, 2019  
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By guest blogger Tyler Wu, Higher Education Policy Analyst, The Education Trust—West

If you walked into the Val Verde High School library on an evening this past February, you might have been surprised to find it full of adults on their phones. Administrators, counselors, and other school staffers were making 750 calls in an effort to connect with families and students, offering reminders and assistance with filling out their applications for college financial aid.

“People have been talking about equity in education for a long time, but the problem is that there are very few concrete examples about what people are doing for equity,” says Val Verde Unified School District Superintendent Michael R. McCormick. “Assisting students with completing the FAFSA/CADAA is an actionable approach – this is about not just talking about equity, but doing equity.”

Val Verde Unified School District’s commitment to supporting students with accessing financial aid doesn’t stop with phone banks. When district leaders found that low-income students were not completing and submitting financial aid applications, they made financial aid application completion a graduation requirement in 2017. In the first year of implementation alone, FAFSA and California Dream Act Application (CADAA) completion* increased from 69% to 83% – with no negative impact on graduation rates and preliminary data showing increased college-going.

It’s one thing to pass a policy, but it is another to follow through and make sure that policy implementation truly benefits the lives of students and families. In a state like California, which claims a progressive leadership role in the country but has alarming racial equity gaps in education, Val Verde USD is taking the kind of bold and intentional steps that couple equity rhetoric with action.

What’s Happening in California

Val Verde USD’s work is clearly laudable. But when it comes to financial aid application rates across California, we have a problem. In the past two years combined, nearly half a million high school seniors did not complete a FAFSA or Dream Act application, ranking the state at 30th nationally despite notable informational, awareness, and completion efforts at the state level to increase these rates. This rate of completion is all the more troubling when we consider the relationship between financial aid and college-going. We know, for instance, that providing additional outreach and assistance with FAFSA completion resulted in a 30% increase in college enrollment of high school seniors.

While there is growing attention to reforming California’s financial aid system, policymakers must also consider why students aren’t applying and who isn’t even aware of financial aid programs and the processes to apply to them. California educates approximately 1 out of every 10 K-12 students in the nation and has more students graduating from high school than any other state, and yet thousands of eligible students miss out on the financial aid they are entitled to receive. The lack of a statewide policy that ensures students complete a financial aid application before graduating also contributes to racial and economic equity gaps in financial aid access throughout California. While some schools and districts have high FAFSA/Dream Act application completion rates, there are far too many schools with predominantly low-income students and students of color where application completion rates are abysmally low.

A Statewide Policy Solution

We applaud the bold steps taken in places like Val Verde USD – but we also cannot and should not depend on a “trickle-around-the-state” approach to hoping best practices take hold rapidly across California. Under the leadership of Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, representing California’s 47th Assembly District, Ed Trust—West is taking steps to close these racial and economic equity gaps with urgency by sponsoring Asm. Reyes’ proposed legislation, AB 1617, an effort to help more students go to college by making aid application completion a component of the graduation process. We’ve seen this work as a statewide effort. In the first year of implementing a similar policy, Louisiana saw financial aid application completion rates increase by 26 percentage points – making the state the highest ranking in the nation for FAFSA completion. If the red state of Louisiana can take such a bold, intentional – and dare we say progressive – step, surely California can. History and evidence tell us that without intentional and meaningful action, the most underserved among us will continue to be let down by the very systems attempting to embrace equity and better serve communities of color across our state.

Outcomes in education are inextricably linked to the choices policymakers make. Right now, California has a clear choice – and what is in front of us is a clear solution. We also know policy change alone won’t solve the problem, and we stand ready with our Val Verde USD colleagues and a statewide network of advocates to assist with and monitor equitable implementation, should the proposal be signed into law. What we have seen in Louisiana and Val Verde USD show us what is possible when we choose to not just talk, but to do something about equity. If we stick with the status quo in California, around a quarter of a million high school seniors won’t fill out a financial aid application next year. Isn’t it time we did something about that?



*The California Dream Act Application (CADAA) provides an opportunity for undocumented and nonresident documented students to apply for and receive state aid.

(Photo courtesy of Michael McCormick)