UB’s FAFSA Project opening doors to educational futures

Nathan Daun-Barnett, second from left, with students at Bennett High School. Pictured with Daun-Barnett are, from left, UB graduate student Caitlin Kubala, Bennett student Kelvin Sika, UB graduate student Khristian King and Bennett student Lamont Owens. Photo: Douglas Levere

Scope of the successful financial aid program continues to grow

Release Date: September 30, 2014

“Families who live below the poverty line ... have really complicated situations that are not easy to capture on the financial aid form. And it actually takes more time and more visits with families to do that. And that’s time we were able to give back to the counselors.”
Nathan Daun-Barnett, director, FAFSA Completion Project
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – When your team of financial aid specialists can raise the percent of Buffalo high school students successfully completing the all-important financial aid application by 61 percent in a few months, you do the reasonable thing: You try to reach more students.

That’s just what University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Nathan J. Daun-Barnett and his team of UB graduate students did. They followed up a banner year of putting students in the position for receiving significant financial aid – many of whom live below the federal poverty line – by reaching out to other schools.

Any expansion of the program just adds to what is already a clear success. The 61 percent increase in the number of Buffalo Public School students who successfully completed this complicated and often daunting FAFSA application includes many students who could not have afforded college without completed FAFSA forms.

“That was pretty astonishing,” says Daun-Barnett, on the 2013 increase over the previous year. “A lot of that had to do with the fact many of these families did not realize what the timeline was to complete financial aid forms. So we really accelerated that for them.”

This past year, Daun-Barnett and his team worked in 20 Buffalo public high schools, up from 14 in 2013. There were 1,052 FAFSAs competed on time among all city students in 2014. UB’s FAFSA Project worked directly with close to 750 of them.

“The total numbers were about the same,” says Daun-Barnett. “But we worked with more students. The fact we had worked with two-thirds of the students was important.”

Besides increasing the number of schools involved from 14 to 20, the UB FAFSA Project increased the amount of time they sent volunteers to schools from two months to four months. The number of volunteers grew from 40 to 60.

The increases in the numbers of students this year came mostly from the five city charter schools welcoming FAFSA volunteers. Like they did last year in district high schools, the UB FAFSA specialists again triggered dramatic gains in the number of students successfully completing FAFSA forms. Oracle Charter School at 888 Delaware Ave. is one example. Without UB’s team, 12 Oracle students completed the FAFSA form successfully on time in 2013. After one year of working closely with the FAFSA team, 46 students there successfully completed the FAFSA form on time.

“This year, working closely with the guidance counselors, we increased the numbers at Oracle by nearly 400 percent,” says Daun-Barnett. “And when we talked to counselors, it was specifically because they had the assistance to work with families that had really complicated situations.”

Overall, 190 students from the five charter schools completed FAFSAs, up from 155 the previous year. When you add the number of charter school students filing FAFSAs to those from Buffalo Public Schools, the total number of students in the district or public charter schools filing FAFSAs is close to 1,250, well ahead of that same population in 2013.  

“What’s more, for the second year in a row, accuracy rates for all schools went up,” Daun-Barnett says. “There were fewer students who by the end the project were left with errors in their applications. And those errors in the past would prevent students from being eligible for financial aid, or the students and families would have to deal with those problems later when they didn’t have the support of others.”

Daun-Barnett frequently talks about the complicated family situations that often make filling out the forms much more difficult for low-income families than those with more conventional support systems.

“That’s something I don’t think everybody recognizes,” Daun-Barnett says. “Families who live below the poverty line (about 85 percent of the city’s students come from families considered poor by federal standards) have really complicated situations that are not easy to capture on the financial aid form.  And it actually takes more time and more visits with families to do that.

“And that’s time we were able to give back to the counselors.”

The time the UB Team saved guidance counselors from helping students fill out their financial aid forms is significant, according to Daun-Barnett.

“If we give back even an hour for every kid we worked with to the counselors in the district,” Daun-Barnett says, “we’re talking about 700 or 800 hours we’ve given back to the counselors to spend helping kids make more important decisions about where they’re going to go college or what their careers are going to be.

“That has a real impact, not only on the student we work with, but on a system struggling to make a meaningful difference with kids in the Buffalo Public Schools.”

Daun-Barnett emphasizes how the success of the program should not just be measured by sheer numbers. Reaching these difficult and complicated cases also is a big part of what the program hopes to accomplish, he says. Daun-Barnett talks about a student he calls Brian (not his real name) from Bennett High School. Daun-Barnett met with Brian six times, and twice with his mother (Daun-Barnett’s assistant had similar meetings with them).

“The challenge we always ran into was Mom didn’t understand the process,” says Daun-Barnett.  “She was skeptical of sharing her information with others. This is the most sensitive personal financial information you have. And she really distrusted the school.

“We worked very hard to help her understand the process and develop some trust in us that showed we were looking out for her best interest,” he says. “And eventually, we were able to convince her to do what it took to get the financial aid forms done, so that he was able to successfully enroll in Medaille College.”

Brian’s sister was the other part of what the FAFSA Project calls success. His older sister graduated a year before he did, Daun-Barnett says. She wanted to go to college but was unable to because of money, and when it was time for her to apply for financial aid, she ran into the same obstacles completing the FAFSA form as Brian.

“This year, Brian was able to then go and work with his sister and she is also enrolled in college right now,” says Daun-Barnett. “That to me is a success that has much bigger effects than what we see on paper.

“We’re going to keep him in the fold and have him help us with students in the future.”

Throughout this process, Daun-Barnett can see the significant effect these college discussions have on students at a crossroad. They can either do the work and face the challenges of continuing their education, which still is the best path to a better life, he says. Or they can give in to the frustrations and outside distractions and take their chances at a life without a good education.

“One of the reasons I love doing this with students is I know when I sit down with a student to complete their financial aid form, the conversation will never be just about the form or finances,” says Daun-Barnett. “It’s going to be about where did you want to go to college? What do you want to do with your career. What is it going to take for you to be successful when you get there?

“When I sit undergraduate and graduate students down with high school students to talk about those questions, those students are experts,” he says. “The college students know what it takes to be successful. They know how to navigate that process.  They like sharing that information with high school students.

“That information in my estimation is far more important to that student long-term than actually getting the form done. The form matters, but it’s those informal conversations that really make the biggest impact.”

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