Students in some of the region's poorest high schools are least likely to have completed key financial aid forms as college admissions – and financial aid offers – start to roll in for seniors.
Just one out of nine area districts where at least half of the students are considered economically disadvantaged had more than half of their seniors complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as of March 8, according to federal data.
The data come from an analysis by Education Trust-New York, a New York City-based education think tank that focuses on equity, which pulled federal data on school-level FAFSA completion rates into a searchable database of New York schools. The federal data is updated regularly as the financial forms are processed.
The FAFSA form asks students and their families to report tax, income and other financial and personal data to determine the kind of federal student aid families qualify for; colleges also use the information in determining how much financial aid they may offer students – often a figure that determines whether or not a student can attend a particular school.
While families across income levels submit the financial aid forms and benefit from doing so, the education group's findings suggest schools with the highest share of low-income students have the lowest FAFSA completion rates.
“Of course, what we would hope to see is more and more low-income kids get the support they need to complete the FAFSA,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York.
The organization's project highlighted low-income districts in the state with higher FAFSA completion rates than their counterparts. Rosenblum said those districts were focused on working with students to complete the FAFSFA forms, hosting events where families can get help to fill out the forms, making specific completion plans for students, tracking data to focus on students who haven't finished and partnering with outside agencies that work closely with families.
“There's a complexity to the form and the amount of personal information that it requires, particularly for a family that might be going through this process for the first time, that might be daunting and intrusive,” Rosenblum said.
Schenectady High School, where just over 30 percent of seniors had completed the FAFSA as of early-March, has hosted FAFSA events throughout the year, said counselors Amanda Cruz and Earl Barcomb. The school hosts a college and career week in the fall, with a FAFSA event shortly after the Oct. 1 start date for annual FAFSA cycles. The school hosted another three or four events throughout the year, the counselors said, where parents signed up to come in and receive help filling out the forms. The counselors said they work closely with students to get through what can be a difficult process.
“My mom didn't really know how to fill it out, and I had to communicate between her and Barcomb,” said Luisa Sanchez, a Schenectady senior who has been offered full scholarships at multiple schools. Sanchez said it a took “a couple sessions” in Barcomb's office to finalize the financial aid documents.
“I think it's a lack of knowledge,” counselor Amanda Cruz said of the school's completion rates. “Sometimes parents aren't really familiar with the process.”
Ultimately, for most all Schenectady students, finishing the FAFSA will be an essential step before college.
“We realize it's a necessity for our kids,” Cruz said.