CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR HISTORY AND PERSONAL EXPERIENCE HELPING STUDENTS PLAN THEIR FINANCIAL PATH TOWARDS COLLEGE?

I was a first-generation college student, thus the college admission and financial aid application processes were very daunting to me. I had very little, to no awareness about how to finance my college education. My high school counselor was there to provide me the resources I needed to apply and be accepted to college. However, there was never much discussion about how I would pay for college.

The day I arrived on campus as a freshman at UC Berkeley, I did not know who was paying for my college education. All I knew was that I had signed various documents and had a dorm room, food, and my classes were paid for. It was not until the end of my Sophomore year in college I learned I was taking out student loans to fund my education. When I read my financial aid award letter I interpreted “Financial Aid” to mean free money for college. I will never forget feeling so alone and ashamed for not understanding something that seemed to be so simple. In tears, I vowed I would work hard to ensure this never happened to another student.

I want to educate students about their college finances and ensure they are well equipped with the knowledge they need to make wise decisions. Through the Making Waves Foundation College and Alumni Program, I have developed a robust series of financial literacy workshops that takes a student and his/her family through their senior year of high school. The year of education, training, and preparation tackles the college financial aid process. The programming is broken down into student/parent educational presentations and workshops, senior seminars, one-on-one meetings, and quarterly newsletters. By the end of the senior year students and their families will be able to identify and understand:

- Distinct types of colleges/universities
- Actual college costs
- Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
- Different types of financial aid
- How to apply for financial aid and the different forms that must be completed
- How to read a financial aid award letter
- How to save for college
- How to apply for scholarships
- How to make a college decision based on the best financial fit
- How to create and stick to a budget
- How to complete financial aid verification documents

WHY DOES THE COST OF ATTENDING COLLEGE FUNCTION AS SUCH A DETERRENT FOR STUDENTS?

Sticker shock is a major deterrent for many students and families when it comes to college. They see a very large number and right away think they cannot afford it. However, I believe through educating students and their families about the cost of college and how to interpret financial aid awards, there can be a shift in the mindset of many. I have seen first hand how many parents are unaware how financial aid works. Many think because they make a certain amount of income per year, they will not qualify for financial aid. I believe removing those misconceptions through education will lead to more low-income, first-generation students applying to college.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT PAYING FOR COLLEGE?

My students often ask me, “Ms. Chavez, can I file as 'independent' on my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) so I can get more financial aid money?” This is the number one misconception many students and families have about paying for college. They believe if the student claims an “independent” status on the FAFSA they will be awarded a “full-ride” or full scholarship to college. Claiming to be independent on the FAFSA does not grant you a full-ride to college. Many students and families are not aware of the strict guidelines for claiming “independent” on the FAFSA.

Another misconception is how the “EFC” or Expected Family Contribution works. Many families see that number on the FAFSA Student Aid Report and immediately think they cannot afford college. If the EFC for a family is $5,000, it does not necessarily mean they will have to pay that amount directly to the school. Within our program, College and Alumni Program (CAP), we take the time to educate both the student and parent so they are informed to make the right choices. We meet one-on-one with families after they file the FAFSA to discuss their EFC and how it translates from their financial aid award letter to the family's out-of-pocket expense.

WHAT CHOICES ARE YOU SEEING STUDENTS AND FAMILIES HAVE TO MAKE BASED ON THE COSTS OF HIGHER EDUCATION? How does this affect low-income families? Middle-class families?

As the cost of attending college rises, many families are reluctant to have their child apply to out-of-state colleges. I see many middle-class parents encourage their children to attend a local college or university to save on the housing expenses and avoid student loans. In some situations, this might not be a bad option for a family, however, when a student is receiving a sizeable financial aid award package, and the family is still reluctant to have their child move away, it can hinder the student's social and emotional growth. I often see these situations with low-income families because they lack the understanding about how to finance a college education. It is my job to ensure they understand where the money is coming from and how it is going to be applied toward their cost of attendance. Additionally, it's important they are clear about the role student loans should or should not play in their decision making process.

WHAT IS ONE THING YOU WISH ALL STUDENTS AND PARENTS/ GUARDIANS KNEW ABOUT FINANCING AN EDUCATION?

Many families live paycheck-to-paycheck, so it can be very difficult for them to save for their child's college education. However, I wish every student and parent realized the importance of saving what they can early on -- even if it is a few dollars each month. This could also help to offset all of the additional expenses that come in the senior year of high school. Aside from prom, yearbook purchases, and graduation celebrations, there are other non-social activities to pay for, such as college applications, standardized test fees, housing deposits, enrollment deposits, and freshman orientation fees. Many families are unaware of these costs and struggle to make these payments when the time comes. Saving little by little in advance can ease some of the financial strain during the student's senior year.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO STUDENTS THINKING ABOUT APPLYING TO COLLEGE, BUT AREN'T SURE THEY CAN AFFORD TO ATTEND?

Apply! Never close the door on a potential opportunity due to the unknown. A college degree opens many doors and there are many opportunities to find funding for college. The first step in the process is to apply to college. Make sure that you have a well-balanced college list. Choose colleges/universities that range in cost, including some more affordable options, like in-state schools or even community colleges in your area.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR ORGANIZATIONS LIKE CAP TO PROVIDE RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS TO HELP THEM NAVIGATE THE COST OF COLLEGE?

Our College and Alumni Program has an unique approach to educating parents and students. We are very detailed and targeted to the population we serve. We are fortunate to have an entire staff dedicated specifically to educating students and families about college finances. Our team takes each student and family through the entire college financial aid process from beginning to end. From setting up an FSA (Federal Student Aid) ID pin to completing the FAFSA and CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile, all the way through verification. This is very important to do with families whether they are first-generation college bound families or not. The entire process can be overwhelming and stressful so it is very important for students and families to feel supported. CAP is their “life-line” during the college financial aid process. We are available to answer their questions, provide guidance, offer resources and sometimes, just listen.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE WAYS YOU SEE THE HIGH SCHOOLS AND SCHOOL DISTRICT'S YOU WORK WITH ARE SUPPORTING STUDENTS APPLYING TO COLLEGE, SPECIFICALLY FINANCIAL AID?

I have had the pleasure to sit on the Advisory Board for the Richmond Promise, a community-based scholarship fund, alongside members of the local school district and learn about their practices in supporting students with the financial aid process. There is a recurring theme arising in these conversations regarding the lack of understanding from students and families about the importance of completing the FAFSA. Many schools are not able to provide parent/student education about attending college and paying for it. In turn, when senior year arrives, there are not many students applying for financial aid. If districts had the capacity to adopt the CAP senior year financial literacy programming, we could potentially see greater numbers of students applying for financial aid.

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE ROLE OF A UNIVERSITY IS IN SUPPORTING STUDENTS STRUGGLING TO PAY FOR COLLEGE?

When a student begins to struggle with paying for school they are at a considerable risk of dropping out of college, and the chances of them returning to complete their degree decrease as time goes by. I do believe a college/university should support its students in finding resources to help them pay for college. Whether that is scholarship workshops, directing the student to resources in the community, or helping the student appeal for more aid. There needs to be some shared responsibility with the institution if the appropriate financial literacy education was not provided to the student/ family prior to them committing to the institution.

WHERE DO YOU RECOMMEND STUDENTS, AND THEIR SUPPORT SYSTEMS, TURN FOR RESOURCES AND GUIDANCE AS THEY BEGIN TO PLAN HOW TO FUND THEIR EDUCATION?

The Federal Student Aid website has many resources for students and parents. They provide a lot of information on several types of financial aid along with calculators to project the overall cost of attending college and the EFC (Expected Family Contribution). In addition, some states offer their own financial aid programs, and many community colleges may offer fee waivers for tuition and fees for in-state residents. Also, community-based organizations may offer resources to students including scholarship opportunities. Students and parents should also inquire with their school's college counselor for resources that will help them plan for their child's college education. Lastly, if families want to start saving for college, they should reach out to their financial institution and schedule an appointment to meet with an associate to discuss which products they have available to help them save for college. Many banks and credit unions offer college savings accounts that make it convenient for a family to transfer funds from their checking account to a college savings account.

ANY FINAL THOUGHTS FOR US?

It would be beneficial to all involved if financial aid training were part of the professional development of college counselors. Their caseloads are often large, and they don't have the capacity or resources to assist with all of their students applying for college and financial aid. Additionally, “summer melt” (the phenomenon of students who enroll in college in the spring, but do not attend in the fall) could be helped by college counselors working in the summer months. Obviously, we dream big about systemic changes at CAP!

Ivette Chavez

Lead Financial Services Coordinator for CAP

Ivette Chavez is the Lead Financial Services Coordinator for CAP, a nonprofit program that helps low-income and historically-underrepresented college students graduate quickly and with as little debt as possible. On average, CAP students borrow $529 in federal loans annually, which is 80% less than the national average of $2,593 in federal loans for undergraduate students. Ms. Chavez leads a team of financial services coordinators who work with more than 500 students to develop a holistic financial plan to afford college. With twelve years of experience in this line of work, Ms. Chavez also has a bachelor's degree from UC-Berkeley and a master's degree in public administration, organizational management and policy analysis from Cal State-East Bay.