“I’m not going there.”

“I’m not going to help with the FAFSA, I will refer the student somewhere else, I am not touching that parent’s tax info.” These are common thoughts in many school counseling departments, not out of task avoidance or malice, but simply out of fear.

Many school counselors often do not want to get involved with assisting students directly with the FAFSA because they are afraid that they will give them the wrong information. They may also think that the family’s income information is not information that the school counselor is privy to.

However, financial aid is a facet in the life of high school counselors that comes up all year long.

Students often make their decisions on whether or not they should attend college based on their assumptions of not being able to afford it and sometimes before they have even applied for any sort of financial aid.

What I have found, thanks to an intern I worked with, is that counselors are in a very important position to assist students with this process and their students and families sometimes feel the most comfortable going to them for assistance. We are here for a reason.

Share Your Story

One of the things that I share when it comes to building rapport with my students in regards to this topic is my story of financial aid. I open up to share how my process of obtaining grants, loans and scholarships worked out, and this allows them to see a first-hand snapshot of the process and all the variables in it.

I was fortunate enough to have earned the Peter Witt Scholarship during my junior and senior years at Case Western Reserve University for my work in the Cleveland Public Schools. I say this to inform the students about how there are scholarships available to them once they are in college as well.

I advise them that the financial aid package can vary every year, so the process of applying this first year is important and is also practice for the upcoming years. I also have had direct experience with loan forgiveness, and I discuss the possibility of these options with students. In addition, I like to talk to students about financial aid information through the Sallie Mae Scholarship Search, Naviance, The College Board and RaiseMe.

Unique Scenarios

I believe it is important to give parents or guardians the opportunity to come and sit with me and do the FAFSA. Not only does this allow for you to go through the details of the process together, but in case there are any questions, I can reach out to the Federal Student Aid Information Center on their chatline, with the parent/guardian, ask questions and go through the scenario together.

Many of our students have guardianship situations that are complicated, so I often pull from the trainings I have gone to and I often email or chat with the representatives I know will have the most up-to-date information. We also have the chat transcript to print out, which the parent/guardian and student can take.

I can also keep it for the students’ records should any discrepancy arise in the financial aid process. Because we are not accountants, we may be oblivious to the language of tax returns and having the support of those in the know will help decipher any confusing queries.

Let’s Do This in Reverse

In addition, sitting with the family to do this task allows us both to learn together and discuss other concerns that may be relevant to the students’ progress, plan and path. The School Selection portion of the FAFSA opens up a discussion on which schools the student might want to apply to and why.

Counselors usually begin with the college search process before going into financial aid, but I have discovered that through the opposite, where we approach financial aid first, the reality that is revealed allows for a more authentic and enriched college search.

Often, this process demonstrates if college should be or could be the next immediate step for the student. This lets us learn more about each student’s story and how he/she would like it to develop.

Flexible Scheduling

FAFSA Nights are one of the best ways to accommodate the schedules of families. I work in conjunction with the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) to have a representative come and share information with families.

We have a computer lab set up, and we ask the families to come with their prior-year tax information and other documents so that we can assist them through the process. Many families feel more comfortable going through this process alone, but we do afford them the assistance should they need it.

I recently learned about the FAFSA4Caster, which allows students to get an early estimate of their financial aid. This along with the Net Price Calculator of each college and university, are tools that allow students to have an idea of what kind of money will be involved in paying for their higher education.

Having a parent symposium in the evening, perhaps right before an open house report card distribution, would be a great time to present about these tools and have families apply them with your support.

Controversies and Queries

Sitting with the parents and families also allows us to discuss other issues that are important for students, such as Selective Service Registration, the loan process, the Educational Opportunity Fund and options for various scholarships. Students who do not have all of their documentation also have a variety of questions and concerns when it comes to applying for financial aid.

In these cases, I work with the Federal Student Aid Information Center, HESAA and the individual college financial aid offices to get the answers they need whether it be through phone calls, emails, or perhaps through visits to our school.

I often admit to parents/families and students when I do not have the answers and stay transparent with the process. This allows us to build a better rapport and engage in learning together. With changes happening every year, I feel that I always have new opportunities to be able to learn about what options students have for financial aid.

The Growth Factor

The financial aid process can be very tricky, but the answers are out there and staying abreast of the changes is an education both for our students and families as well as for ourselves. I have learned not to be afraid of what I do not know, and it has not only assisted with building better relationships with my students and their families but has also permitted me to form my professional network with those individuals working in higher education.

I no longer hesitate to ask questions and have developed connections as a school counselor. My students also feel more empowered because they understand this process and can feel ownership of it because they, too, no longer have fear.

With this knowledge comes more efficient and thorough decision-making for the next steps in their educational and professional journeys.