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Advocates Help Dallas County High School Students Apply For Financial Aid

Simon Cunningham
Financial Aid workshops are being held this weekend for Dallas County high school students.

Dallas County high school seniors missed out on $34 million in college grants last year. That’s according to Commit, a local nonprofit that says more than half of the students did not apply for financial aid. We find out what they and others are doing to change that.

Applying for financial aid before applying to college may sound like a chore, or even daunting. After all, there are all those questions you have to answer. There are the easy ones:

“What is the name of your high school? Bryan Adams High School.”

“What is the city of your high school located? Dallas.”

Alex Castillo, a senior, doesn’t mind those questions. But other questions are trickier:

“As determined by court and your state of legal residence, are you or were you an … What? Oh … ”

The question says "emancipated minor."

“Oh, no," Castillo answers, then hesitates. "Right?”

Fortunately for Alex, he was at a financial aid workshop for Dallas County high school students. He and his parents got help filling out online forms from a team of volunteers.

“When we talk to students that are currently in college, they were telling us stories about how some of their friends didn’t know about it and were paying for college using credit cards, which is crazy and not what we want at all,” says Sarah Jensen, Deputy Director of College Access for the the nonprofit education group Commit.

She explains that many students simply don’t know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- or FAFSA. There’s also the Texas version called TASFA.

Last year, Dallas County students missed out on more than $34 million in financial aid. Not all of them are thinking about going to college. But filling out these forms may encourage them to continue their studies after high school.

“Everybody worries about paying for college,” Jensen says. “That’s the number one barrier for students thinking about college and if a student doesn’t think they can pay for college, they’re probably not going to take the steps that they need to enroll in pre-AP or AP classes or really see themselves in college.”

Jensen says that’s why Commit, United Way and the Dallas Public Library have teamed up with Dallas and Richardson school districts, the University of North Texas and other local groups. According to Commit, about 6,000 low-income seniors in Dallas County did not file a financial aid form last year.

Sometimes the reason is misinformation. Families may think that just filling out a form obligates them to take out loans.

“Some families may think, ‘Well we don’t need to fill that out because we probably make too much to qualify for aid,’ " Jensen says. "But what they don’t realize is that filling out the FAFSA is also how you have access to unsubsidized Stafford Loans, which everybody qualifies for when you fill out the application.”

This is the third year that Commit has offered these workshops. In the beginning, only 40 percent of students applied for aid. The goal is raise that number to half by 2018.

Back at the workshop, Alex’s mom, Olga Castillo says she’s proud of her son.

“Me siento muy orgullosa …’’

Castillo says she’s glad Alex is trying to better himself. It hasn’t been easy though, in part because she and her husband don’t know about all the resources that are available. And, she adds, the counselor at Alex’s school has been very busy working with other students.

“Y la verdad, el solo con sus amigos, companeros … ”

She says his friends who’ve already graduated from high school have given Alex advice about applying to college. If he's accepted to his school of choice – the University of Texas at Arlington -- then filling out all those tricky FAFSA forms could pay off.

To find out about upcoming financial aid workshops, visit Commit's event page.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.