Inland Empire school districts commit to increasing financial aid application completion rates

Photo MJ Duncan: Regional K-12 school leaders came together during the launch of initiative “Leave No Money on the Table” Friday morning at Carter High School in Rialto in a display of unified commitment to raise financial aid application completion rates. From left: Victor Valley Union High School District Dr. Collins, Chaffey Joint Union High School District Assistant Superintendent Alternative Instruction Dr. Chris Hollister, Riverside Unified School District Board member Patricia Lock Dawson, BLU Foundation CEO/President and Rialto Unified Board member Dina Walker, San Bernardino City Unified School District Board President Gwen Dowdy-Rogers, Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, SBCCD Trustee Frank Reyes, Fontana Unified School District Superintendent Randall Bassett, and Rialto Unified Superintendent Dr. Cuauhtémoc Avila.
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Inland Empire high school students will be fully informed of college financial aid resources available to them through the “Leave No Money on the Table” campaign spearheaded by BLU Educational Foundation, to eliminate barriers around college affordability and access to financial resources in regards to disadvantaged students in the inland region.

The launch was announced on Friday morning, Sept. 4, at Carter High School in Rialto, where leaders from various school districts throughout Riverside and San Bernardino counties came together to commit to the goal of increasing FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and Dream Act application completion rates among high school students.

According to BLU Foundation President / CEO and Rialto Unified School District Board member Dina Walker, the nonprofit organization has strived to make the conversation of financial aid imperative for the past 10 years; the movement started to gain traction two years ago across California.

“I want to thank Assemblymember Eloise Reyes because two years ago we came to her and said ‘this is an opportunity for us to do something big,’ and she did not hesitate (to work with us),” noted Walker. “It became a signed bill, AB 2015, to ensure that in 11th grade, in class they will begin to talk about financial aid, it won’t be something people will only hear about in 12th grade.”

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AB 2015 commenced this academic year requiring governing boards of school districts ensure each student receives information on how to properly complete and submit the FAFSA or California Dream Act application at least once before the student enters 12th grade.

“Our goal is to make it easier for all California students to go to college; the research is clear, by providing students and families assistance with completing and submitting a FAFSA you significantly increase the chances of that student enrolling in college, this is especially true for low income students,” remarked Reyes, who encouraged school leaders to focus on a regional approach. “Policy change that changes a student’s experience and success rate happens at the local level.”

A diligent student in high school, Rialto Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Cuauhtémoc Avila revealed he had no knowledge financial aid was an option until the second semester of his senior year at Compton High; it wasn’t until his college counselor helped him apply for FAFSA that he would benefit from the aid.

“For me college had not been a part of my conversation… it wasn’t part of family culture or family expectation,” Avila shared. “College wasn’t part of the culture because it wasn’t financially accessible… for me [financial aid] opened up a world of opportunity and led me to where I am today.”

According to BLU Foundation College Prep Adviser Darrell Jones, despite living in the age of information and technology, there remains a large population of students and families unaware of the assistance available to them.

“We have to normalize the discussion of including financial aid. Many low income students feel like they just can’t afford it because the conversation about FAFSA or Cal Grant wasn’t had or wasn’t had until the very last minute,” Jones indicated. “Financial aid is a foreign concept… some don’t know about Cal Grants, that’s almost $2,000 on the table… I think financial aid should be a high school graduation requirement for students so we don’t leave money on the table.”

San Bernardino City Unified School District Board President Gwen Dowdy-Rodgers noted that despite 93% of students meeting A-G requirements for college, more could be done to prepare them for higher education such as proactively engaging students to meet with their counselors to discuss their futures and outlining specific steps needed to achieve those goals.

“San Bernardino City Unified is definitely on board because we want our students to have choices, and they cannot have a choice when we say ‘go to college, go to college, go to college’ but don’t give them the tools for them to be able to do that,” Dowdy remarked.

Fontana Unified School District Superintendent Randall Bassett indicated FUSD has increased its FAFSA completion rate by 10% to 72% over the last two years, ranking above state and regional rates.

“It’s really about knocking down those barriers for our students, and financial aid is one of those things that is a big barrier,” Bassett declared. “But we still need to come together to overcome the expectation barrier, the fear barrier, and all those things that block our students from realizing their potential as we have incredible potential here in the Inland Empire that is just waiting to be realized.”

School districts represented on Friday: Rialto Unified, San Bernardino City Unified, Fontana Unified, Riverside City Unified, Victor Valley Union High, and Chaffey Joint Union High.

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