uAspire and the Citi Foundation Partner to Improve Postsecondary Outcomes for Students by Focusing on Financial Aid Award Letters

By: Stephen Sullivan | Friday, March 11, 2016

When Jannell — a bright, intelligent senior at George Washington High School in San Francisco – first worked with uAspire to update her FAFSA, she shared the same excitement we see in so many of our students. On the brink of adulthood, she was thrilled to be applying to colleges and had a dream of studying business at either Dominican University or St. Mary’s College.

Jannell was a first-generation college-going student from a family with an annual household income of about $12,000. This situation, one seen frequently by uAspire, meant financial aid was critically important to her ability to afford college. When she came back in to meet with her uAspire Advisor, Arman, for his guidance on which college to attend, he helped her review and analyze her eight financial aid awards. Together, they learned that both of her dream schools left her with more than $11,000/year in out-of-pocket expenses. Jannell’s family considered taking out a Parent PLUS loan, but once Arman explained the terms of repayment for her family, Jannell ruled this out.

Arman encouraged Jannell to consider UC Davis or UC Irvine—both much more affordable options, with under $1,000 a year in out-of-pocket expenses. Jannell shared that UC Davis didn’t offer her intended major and she was hesitant about UC Irvine because she hadn’t visited or researched it and thought transportation home during breaks and holidays would be too expensive. Arman validated these concerns—and explained the tremendous cost savings. As a UCI alumnus, he also described the programs, campus life, and resources for first-generation students. He gave Jannell a list of affordable bus options to take a college visit. Soon after, Jannell texted Arman saying that she had visited UCI with her parents and ended up loving the school.

Students will often make an emotional choice about college based on acceptance letters before they even receive their award letter or understand the full costs of their decision and the long-term impact it can have on them and their families. Arman first helped Jannell complete the critical steps in applying for financial aid and then taught her the concept of affording college, opening her eyes to another strong academic opportunity that was far better financially.


As student debt continues to rise – it has now surpassed credit card debt as the second highest form of personal debt behind a mortgage – we find ourselves facing a new challenge. While we certainly never want to quash the exciting dreams of our high schoolers, we must – as a nation and as individual practitioners – find a way to make real to students the financial implications of their choices for higher education.

uAspire recognizes that getting students to understand the financial implications of their college choices up front plays a critical role in ensuring their enrollment at a postsecondary institution and their persistence toward a degree. Based on our three decades of experience working with students, we are increasingly focusing on the review and analysis of financial aid award letters – and trumpeting their importance to others in the college access field.

While an award letter is the culmination of the entire senior year financial aid process, it often receives the least amount of attention. Because of the sequence in which they are completed, focus tends to be placed on completing the FAFSA or verification process, but analyzing award letters to help students make an informed, financially-savvy decision is then rushed or even entirely overlooked. Once they have been accepted to the college of their dreams, it can be very difficult for students to focus on the looming financial decisions.

Compounding this issue is the complexity of the award letters themselves. They contain obscure terminology, incomplete information about total attendance costs, and insufficient explanation of loan terms that make it nearly impossible for students and families – or even school counselors — to determine the bottom line cost. Studies show that frontline staff in high schools and youth-serving nonprofits—on whom many low-income students depend for guidance about post-secondary options—lack the knowledge and training required to help students navigate the financial aid process and make sound college choices taking cost and aid into consideration. And because of when these awards are typically received—often with only two to three weeks before a college’s acceptance deadline and sometimes not even until after that deadline—students face an incredibly tight timeline to schedule a review session with a knowledgeable counselor to help them absorb the information contained in these letters and reach a final decision.

FullSizeRender (6)

To address this issue, uAspire is partnering with the Citi Foundation to train frontline practitioners in six cities across the country on how to deliver effective award letter inventions to their students. These trainings will give school counselors and other providers the knowledge they need to understand award letter components, formats, and differences and demonstrate how our tools and data can be utilized with their students.

This work is aligned with the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative, which aims to provide urban youth around the globe with the career readiness tools and opportunities needed to thrive in the 21st century economy.

So far uAspire has held Award Letter trainings in St. Louis (March 3rd), Los Angeles (March 7th), and Washington, DC (March 10th) with highly engaged groups of practitioners. Three more trainings will be held over the next month in cities across the country:


  • New York, NY – Tuesday, March 22nd, hosted by the NY Department of Education
  • Dallas, TX – Wednesday, March 23rd, hosted by the Commit! Dallas Partnership
  • Chicago, IL – Friday, April 8th, hosted by Chicago Public Schools

Through this work, providers will be better prepared to offer postsecondary affordability support to their students.

uAspire also continues to build out our national award letter initiative that leverages the power of real-life award letter data to demystify financial aid packaging and better inform institutions, practitioners and students about the affordability trends in higher education – for students and families just like them.

Navigating college acceptance letters and determining how to pay for college is a critical leveraging point for students and an important step towards becoming financially independent adults. uAspire’s programming provides a much-needed service to students and families, aiding them in making a financially responsible decision about where to attend college and how to pay for it.