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What Prevents Deserving Students From Accessing Their College Dreams

In the first week of summer break, I run a college prep program for high school students. I teach them about college terminology (undergraduate vs. graduate, e.g.) and how universities are structured, including various departments and majors. Then we tackle how to pay for college, including a close look at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application.

These young people are aspiring college students from a demographic that often struggles with this component of the college experience.

Seventy percent of my students are Native American. We are a Title I district eligible for 100% free breakfast, snack, and lunch due to the Community Eligibility Provision.

5061210124_62bb88baac_z (1).jpgAt least half of the students in this program are first-generation college student hopefuls.

But even more pertinent than that, many are children of addicts and absent parents and are being raised by aunts, uncles, and grandparents. They rely on these caregivers for everything, although many of them also have very little financial support to offer. Even though about a third of our students are being raised by someone other than their parents, almost none of them have transferred guardianship through the courts. It takes a lot of work and money to change guardians, and many of our students' families simply never go that route. The kids just live with the relatives. The schools obtain a limited release from the parent to allow the relatives to make academic decisions in their stead.

So when we reached the section on the FAFSA relating to family contributions, my students were flummoxed.

"My mom doesn't do anything for me. I don't even know where she is. How am I supposed to get this information?" one said.

"My uncle raised me but he doesn't have a job. What do I put here"? another asked.

I jumped on the chat line with a FAFSA agent and learned that these students would have to report their actual parents' income. Everything from the parents' social security numbers to bank account balances to signatures is required in this section, all information which will be difficult or impossible to obtain from the actual parent.

This is when I realized that despite the support and protections in place for some of our most vulnerable students, including first-generation, high-poverty, and underserved students, they still face the hardest uphill battle. Here they are, with strained family support and very little guidance just to select and apply to colleges. But paying for college? Even harder. The "guaranteed" student loans may not even be accessible to them, effectively shutting them out of higher education.

This loan system values parents over a grandparent who is willing to step in on behalf of twin babies abandoned by their mother, values bank account balances over impoverished aunts and uncles who raised five nephews with no help, values a computerized system that weighs numbers against humans and finds humans deficient.

So here's a solution.

The FAFSA could open doors to these students by adding a simple section which asks whether students are living with an adult other than their parents who is not a legal guardian for them, and then offering a text box for additional information. Students could explain: "My grandmother has raised me since birth because my mother is in/out of jail. I have no bank or tax information for her," or "My parents left when I was 12 months old, and my aunt has raised me ever since. There is no way to get their signatures."

Until college is made more affordable for all students and enormous loans are not necessary to access higher education, this simple fix could make a huge difference for large numbers of high school students who - despite familial circumstances tying them to the lowest achievement bar of a high school diploma - are doing everything right: seeking opportunity, learning how to navigate college admissions and other procedures, and following their relatives' exhortations to make the most of themselves.

These students - my students - deserve better.

Anna E. Baldwin is the 2014 Montana State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches English at Arlee High School in Arlee, Mont. During the last school year, she served as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


Photo by Sean MacEntee, courtesy of Creative Commons.

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