Getting the PapersChance Now

There’s much discussion about the lack of “papers” that threaten the livelihood and access to opportunity for many in our community.  Especially for young people, some papers can open or close the door to the future.  A crucial one is FAFSA(Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Completing a FAFSA form is mandatory in order to be awarded financial aid from Title IV programs or most other state-based or school-based programs.  There is $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study money that the Federal government has to offer and FAFSA is the key to accessing it.  These types of financial aid are often the deciding factors of whether or not higher education is in the cards for Hispanic youth.  Since college affordability is an ever-present issue, which school to attend is not a question of which courses they offer or where it’s located.  It’s simply a matter of cost.

Filling out a FAFSA form seems straightforward enough, but to a student doing so alone, or to a parent whose first language isn’t English, the process can be paralyzing.  I make no secret about the fact that when I applied to college, I winged it.  In retrospect, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  My mother was working as a secretary at the time and as a single mother, her finances were pretty basic.  But filling out the FAFSA was still terrifying for us and we fumbled for a while before we were able to complete it.  Even after we submitted the form, we weren’t sure we had done it right.

The issue of debt was something else we struggled with at the time.  For families that are barely making ends meet, and for students who are striving to penetrate a different economic class than their parents, taking on student debt seems counter intuitive.  Is it worth it?  What exactly do you get in return, other than beginning one’s career already in the red?  Even when students are willing, many times their families discourage the choice.

I remember being heartbroken that a younger cousin had chosen to forego the university that had accepted her, based on her parents’ aversion to student loans. Instead, she was encouraged to enroll in the local community college.  My disappointment had nothing to do with the value of community colleges, and everything to do with how unfortunate I found it that an honors student who had worked hard to gain admission to a particular school had been denied the experience.

As a recipient of Federal need-based and merit-based grants, work-study and loans, I chose to take out student loans as an investment in my future---“good debt,” as they say.  At the end of the day, it is a very personal and individual decision but one that every student should have the opportunity to make for themselves.  Not one that is made for them.

 Which is why I applaud President Obama’s recent announcement of the launch of a new FAFSA Completion Initiative, which is led by the Department of Education.  The initiative is intended to give more Americans the chance to afford, attend and graduate from college.  The President’s commitment to improving education is critical to our entire nation’s competitive future, but this initiative will benefit the Latino community in particular.

Students will now have access to critical new tools and resources that will support them in completing the FAFSA form on time.  Additionally, states will partner with the Department of Education to find students who have not completed FAFSA and connect them with support to do so.  The FAFSA application process is simpler now than ever, it’s absolutely free, and thanks to streamlining over the past few years, it now only takes an average of 23 minutes to fill out.  The potential impact of this initiative on our community cannot be overstated.  The Obama Administration has already seen a marked improve in completion numbers since they began their efforts.  There has been a 33% increase in FAFSA forms filed since 2008---from 16.4 million in 2008-2009 to 21.8 million in 2012-2013.

Hispanic youth shouldn’t have to watch their college dreams be shattered because of cost, or have to trade their attainment of opportunity for affordability.  According to a study by the Brookings Institution, only 58% of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners are able to move out of that category, and only 6% of those born into the bottom fifth, will make it into the top fifth.  When we talk about social and economic mobility for Hispanics, the key is a quality education.  And more often than not, that kind of education is going to come at a price.

When I filled out the FAFSA form as a teenager, I never thought that it would open the door to so many opportunities and experiences throughout my life.  Knowing what we know now, it’s our responsibility to ensure that the generations that follow have all the financial resources they need to bet on their future selves.

Alejandra Campoverdi is the founder of A Fighting Chance Now, a nonprofit which empowers Hispanic youth to reach their full potential by connecting them with the support, resources, and tools to take their future into their own hands. The former White House Deputy Director of Hispanic Media, she holds a B.A. from the University of Southern California and an M.P.P. from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.