Over the past year I have had the opportunity to meet with students, parents, educators and community leaders across the country to discuss the importance of education. I have seen first-hand the remarkable impact leadership, engagement and a rigorous education can have, not only on a student but on an entire community. I have also seen the devastating impact associated with the lack of educational opportunity and access, in particular for families who strive to reach the middle class.
During a town hall discussion at a high school, I was reminded of just how critical access to information and awareness of the various financial aid resources that exist can be: in a room filled with 200 high school juniors and seniors, when asked how many had filled out the FAFSA™ form, only 3 hands went up. When asked how many were college bound, the same 3 hands went up. When asked why so many were not thinking of college, the question of affordability was at the forefront of their hesitation. While Latinos have made significant strides in high school completion and college enrollment, there remain challenging gaps that have resulted in only 15 percent of Latino adults graduating with a bachelor’s degree.
I know how important filling out the FAFSA is. For me, it was the difference between taking a minimum-wage job after high school, which was pretty typical in my community and pursuing a college education. Without knowledge of the financial resources available, in particular for minority and first-generation college goers, I would not have pursued my dream of getting a college degree – a degree that opened many doors and ultimately provided me the opportunity to advance the Obama Administration’s education agenda for the Latino community. That same knowledge barrier I faced during my childhood is still relevant to Latino students today. It is not necessarily just a lack of resources, but rather, a lack of awareness of resources available that contribute to the lower educational attainment levels for our community. Increasing awareness of financial aid is the first step to breaking down the knowledge barrier that impacts so many of our Latino students and families.
To help address these issues, the Initiative created the, “¡Gradúate! A Financial Aid Guide to Success” (Guide). The Guide will help Hispanic students and their families navigate the college application process and inform them about federal and non-federal financial aid, including public and private scholarship resources, available. Accessible in English and Spanish, the Guide also provides critical resources for undocumented youth and those granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. We recognize that the Guide is not a solution for all the barriers Latino students may face when exploring a college education, but it can help answer many questions they may have about the college application and financial aid process. I encourage everyone – students, educators, counselors, parents, and community and business leaders – to raise awareness about it wherever you can. Our Guide can only be as useful as the number of students who know about it!
Every child in our nation has promise; that potential should not be limited by a lack of knowledge about resources that could help cultivate and spur that child’s growth. Now, more than ever, we as a community and a nation need to emphasize to our students that there is help available for financing a college education, and that they too have a shot at the American dream. Give them that knowledge, and you might be surprised at the places (or offices) their educational journey might take them!