By Janelle Blakely, Director of Development and Christine Salinas, Manager of Grants and Communications
If you attended college in the last few decades, you probably have memories of filling out that burly federal financial aid application form called the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Completing the FAFSA is often daunting, requiring the help of a parent and access to your family’s tax returns and other legal documentation. Unsurprisingly, most foster youth struggle with the complicated process. For years, foster youth advocates have worried about the incredibly low number of foster youth accessing free financial aid.
It looks like times are changing! We are thrilled to report that this past year, California foster youth completed the FAFSA at a higher rate (65%) than their non-foster youth peers (56%). This is exceptional news since completing the FAFSA is the most important step in ensuring that foster youth receive financial aid and subsequently enroll and persist in college.
Since foster youth have limited access to the information the application requires, Pivotal coaches step in to help with everything from explaining the terminology, locating the necessary documents, and submitting on time. Many other organizations throughout California are stepping up to help, too. John Burton Advocates for Youth, an advocacy organization headquartered in Oakland, developed the FAFSA Challenge. This state-wide campaign brings together a myriad of partners to ensure that foster youth are accessing financial aid as they matriculate from high school into college. “We found it came down to the FAFSA and foster youth not getting through the application process,” said Debbie Raucher, Project Director at John Burton Advocates for Youth. “Some foster youth didn’t know FAFSA was something to fill out. Others didn’t know where to start or got stuck and didn’t have the support to complete it.”
Pivotal High School coach, Laura Phelps, knows all too well how complicated and frustrating it can be to work on the FAFSA. “The FAFSA takes days of work,” she explained. “Some of my students are discouraged by the process, but our coaches go the extra mile to show them what’s possible. I tell my students ‘You may just be a college freshman now but look where you’ll be in eight years!’ FAFSA is part of the tremendous awareness we bring to foster youth,” Phelps shared.
In addition to helping our college scholars complete the FAFSA, our coaches also help scholars complete their Pivotal scholarship application which awards up to $3,000 each year to community college students and up to $5,000 to those enrolled in a 4-year university. We hope to award more than 180 scholarships this year! With dedicated and trained Pivotal coaches, streamlined outreach efforts, and partnerships like the FAFSA Challenge, we are ensuring that foster youth scholars have the financial support they need to get through college and reach self-sufficiency when they emancipate from the foster care system.