Ana’s Story

By: Lara Fox | Thursday, May 1, 2014

April is one of the busiest months of the year at uAspire. Colleges require students to accept their admissions offers by May 1—but many don’t make financial aid award offers until late April or even after the acceptance deadline. Last week, while visiting uAspire advising sessions at Envision Academy in Oakland, I witnessed just how challenging this tight timing can be for students.

A student whom for privacy purposes I’ll call Ana settled in for the last advising session of the day with uAspire’s Bay Area Program Director, Monica Hayden. I watched Ana pull a verification form out of her backpack. Verification is a follow-up step to completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) through which colleges confirm the data that families submitted in their FAFSAs. uAspire educates students about the importance of these verification requests—if they don’t complete the verification process, they become ineligible for financial aid. uAspire also ensures that those who receive these requests execute all required steps, thereby maximizing their financial aid offers.

Early into the session, Monica noted a discrepancy in marital status between the FAFSA and Ana’s father’s tax form; the tax form said he was married but the FAFSA did not. Ana responded quietly, “I didn’t know they had gotten married.” This was the first sign that Monica was entering delicate territory.

Monica gently suggested that Ana call her father or his long-time girlfriend to understand the situation better. As Ana listened on the phone, she paused and then said, “Pero es en los taxes!” Now we understood: the two had not gotten married without telling her. They had erroneously completed their taxes.

Monica has a reassuring, supportive tone in all her interactions with students, and this shone through over the course of what became a 75-minute rather than 25-minute session. First, Monica called the college requesting verification—Ana’s top-choice school—and together with Ana asked whether the college required that this detail of the form be rectified. They replied with a firm yes. Thankfully, they also said that as long as Ana submitted the verification form in a timely fashion, her parents could send in proof of the tax revision once it was completed. But this small win didn’t clear all the hurdles before Ana. This college had not yet sent Ana a financial aid award offer—one week before the deadline for accepting a spot there. Monica asked the school when Ana would receive that crucial letter; the response was within a week or two—potentially after the date by which Ana needed to secure her spot with a deposit. Monica then asked for an estimate of what Ana would receive, given that she had an Expected Family Contribution of $0—that is, had been identified as a student with the greatest financial need. Ana and Monica carefully wrote down the estimates that the college representative shared.

Monica then turned to reviewing Ana’s other college options. A second school had also not yet mailed its offer, so they again got on the phone to a financial aid office to assess what aid might be made available to Ana. After 30 minutes, it was clear that, if the estimates just given were accurate, of the three California State Universities that had accepted Ana, her first-choice school was going to be the most affordable. I saw Ana smile for the first time during the long conversation.

But securing that financial aid package—and thus a spot at the college—hinged on things we couldn’t know in that moment. Would Ana’s father and his girlfriend be willing to revise their taxes to accurately reflect their situation? Would they efficiently find a free, Spanish-speaking tax support service so that the updated form could be submitted in time to ensure that Ana received the aid for which she is otherwise eligible? The “if not” scenario was a bit unbearable. Without access to financial aid, Ana’s college goals would likely be unattainable.

When Ana left, Monica let out a stress-releasing sigh. “That one was tough!”

Tough indeed, I thought. What if Ana hadn’t had a financial aid advisor to carefully lay out and guide her through the next steps? How would she have known to make the calls Monica made and ask the questions Monica had her ask? How would she have known what to have her father do next and where he could get help with it? Would the verification letter and the late financial aid offers have put an end to her college-going dream?

Each student comes through the door with a unique family circumstance. Ana’s case was a difficult but not uncommon one—a family’s lack of know-how about maximizing the financial aid offer compounded by a system not working as intended. Her situation typifies the work that uAspire advisors do session after session with the high school seniors we support.

uAspire will continue to help Ana navigate her particular hurdles to college enrollment. But there are thousands more young people in the Bay Area who need our support in order to find an affordable path through college. This is why uAspire isn’t starting small in the Bay Area. By next fall, we’ll serve 2,000 San Francisco and Oakland high school students, and we will continue to grow our services over the coming years. The strong start we’ve gotten this semester makes me immensely proud to work at uAspire—and to partner with the schools, nonprofits, volunteers, and investors with whom we are building such a strong foundation for our students’ futures.


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