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Fewer students apply for college financial aid amid pandemic; "It's like walking in blind"

The following article is from WTVR-TV Richmond

March 26, 2021

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As the number of students filling out financial aid applications dropped in Virginia, organizations across the state came together for an initiative to help students with the process.

Tomika Brown, Director of ECMC's The College Place Richmond said on average Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion was down nearly 10% across the state, but for students who needed it most in low-income areas, they were seeing dips of more than 30%.

"The FAFSA is the free application for Federal Student Aid, and it is the gatekeeper for all financial aid. A student cannot be awarded any merit or need-based financial aid without a school having a completed FAFSA on file," said Brown. "Because of the pandemic, students aren't able to access help in the ways that they have been able to do so historically."

In response to that need, the Virginia College Access Network partnered with several of the state's college access providers to give students one-on-one support.

Students needing help completing their FAFSA can schedule an online appointment at VirginiaCan.org, Monday through Sunday, and an advisor will walk them through.

"By clicking this link, anyone in the state can get support in completing their FAFSA," said Brown.

17-year-old Brunswick High School senior, Dulce Ruby Trejo, said preparing for college amid the pandemic had been challenging.

"It's a scary thing being first generation, because it's really like walking in blind," said Trejo. "I really have no idea where to start, or what to fill out first."

Trejo said her guidance counselor helped her get in touch with Tomika Brown -- and Brown's support had made all the difference.

"She's really helped me," said Trejo.

Together, they completed Trejo's FAFSA in October. Trejo expects to hear back on financial relief she qualifies for soon.

"I don't really like asking my parents for money or for helping out with something," said Trejo. "Giving them a lift off of their financial burden, it would, it really means a lot."

Watch the TV segment: https://www.wtvr.com/news/local-news/va-organizations-help-high-school-seniors-apply-for-college-financial-aid

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New service designed to assist Virginia students applying for financial aid

The following article is from WDBJ-TV Online

March 23, 2021

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Governor Ralph Northam has announced the launch of a free service to assist Virginia students and families applying for financial aid. It also aims to address a COVID-19-related decline in completion rates of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Northam also set a long-term goal for every eligible student in Virginia to complete a FAFSA application each year.

The Virginia College Access Network (VirginiaCAN) and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) have partnered on a statewide effort to offer free, one-on-one FAFSA completion assistance. From March 22 through June 30, 2021, students and families can go to virginiacan.org/fafsa to schedule a virtual meeting and connect with an advisor who can answer questions and walk them through filling out the FAFSA application.

“The FAFSA is the first step in helping Virginia students qualify for thousands of dollars in state and federal grants and scholarships,” said Governor Northam. “Completing the FAFSA can be difficult under normal circumstances, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and shift to remote learning have added to the challenge of assisting our high school seniors with filling out their forms. This free one-on-one advising service will support our goal of ensuring every eligible student in our Commonwealth completes an application, and open the doors to affordable higher education and technical training for even more Virginians.”

Northam says so far in 2021, 4,315 fewer Virginia high school seniors have completed the FAFSA, which is down nearly 10 percent compared to last year and mirrors the nine percent decline in FAFSA completion rates nationally. For students attending Virginia high schools with high concentrations of low-income students, FAFSA completions are down 33 percent, meaning students who have the most to gain from state and federal aid are missing out on thousands of dollars in financial assistance for college and postsecondary training.

According to a 2018 study, about 15,000 Virginia high school seniors who would have been eligible for Pell grants did not complete the FAFSA, amounting to more than $58 million in federal aid not being used by eligible students.

The FAFSA is also part of Governor Northam’s new “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” (G3) initiative, which provides financial support to cover tuition, fees, and books to eligible Virginia students who complete a FAFSA. The G3 Program aims to make community college more affordable for low- to middle-income people seeking employment in high-demand sectors such as technology, skilled trades, health care, early childhood education, and public safety.

“The launch of this new advising tool comes at a critical time when we must double down on our efforts to support the future success of our students and our Commonwealth,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “While we have a lot of ground to make up this year, we are committed to helping every Virginia student get the federal student aid they are entitled to, and that starts with connecting them with the resources they need to complete the FAFSA.”

To meet the Governor’s goal of ensuring every eligible Virginia student completes the FAFSA, he has directed Secretary Qarni to convene a work group tasked with forming long-term legislative and budgetary recommendations to improve Virginia’s FAFSA completion rates. This group will include representatives from SCHEV, Virginia Community College System and the Virginia Department of Education, along with other stakeholders and college access experts. The work group will conduct listening sessions with community groups to collect input designed to inform their final recommendations to the Governor.

“Right now, Black, African American, Hispanic, and low-income students are less likely to enroll in college than the state average,” said SCHEV Director Peter Blake. “The Virginia Plan for Higher Education calls for closing gaps in college access, and improving FAFSA completion is the first step in closing those gaps.”

VirginiaCAN, a non-profit organization with a mission to support and enhance post-high school education access and attainment for Virginians, is the lead organization in the new one-on-one FAFSA advising service. The five college access organizations participating in this effort include the Access College Foundation, ECMC’s The College Place, GReat Aspirations Scholarship Program (GRASP), the Virginia Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (VASFAA), and the Virginia College Advising Corps (VCAC).

“Most people who begin a FAFSA are stymied by questions on the form,” writes Joy Pugh, VirginiaCAN Board President and Executive Director of the Virginia College Advising Corps, in a new op-ed published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “This is where Virginia’s access providers can help. In the spirit of collective impact, these organizations have banded together to meet this critical FAFSA completion need for students and families across the Commonwealth.”

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Virginia high school seniors receive free help with financial aid application process

Access College Foundation, ECMC’s The College Places, GReat Aspirations ScholarshiP Fund (GRASP), and Virginia College Advising Corps to provide one-on-one guidance

March 22, 2021

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Richmond, Va.—With completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) down substantially, organizations across Virginia are coming together to assist students to ensure they are able to complete the process and uncover financial assistance for college.

The Virginia College Access Network (VirginiaCAN) has partnered with several of the state’s college access providers to provide one-on-one free FAFSA assistance during March. This collaboration includes ECMC’s The College Places, the Virginia College Advising Corps (VCAC), Access College Foundation and the GReat Aspirations Scholarship Program (GRASP).

“The decline in students completing their financial aid applications is troubling, but the good news is, it’s not too late,” said Paula Craw, vice president of student success and outreach for ECMC. “This collaboration among college access providers to bring individualized guidance to these students can increase completion and get more students on track to postsecondary education in our state.”

The collaboration launches at a time when FAFSA completion is down nearly 10 percent compared to this time last year in Virginia. Decreases are most prevalent for students who need financial aid the most—Virginia schools serving a high number of low-income students are down 34 percent, and schools with higher populations of minority students are down 17 percent.

FAFSA completion is the gateway to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid’s more than $120 billion in financial aid to help pay for college. A recent study by the National Center for Education statistics shows that 92 percent of high school seniors who completed the FAFSA enrolled in college by the November following graduation. Only 51 percent of seniors who did not complete a FAFSA enrolled in college in that same time period.

“FAFSA completion is the most important step for students to find their footing on a college pathway, and Virginia’s college access providers are ready to guide the way,” said Joy Pugh, executive director of Virginia College Advising Corps and the current board president of Virginia College Access Network. “There are numerous college access organizations in Virginia making a positive impact on postsecondary access and attainment, contributing to the economic development and strength of our communities.”

Money for college is still available, and several colleges and universities in Virginia pushed back their deadlines for applications and financial aid in recognition of the pandemic’s effects. Virginia’s Community Colleges, firmly grounded in accessibility and affordability, maintain rolling deadlines, and the governor’s new “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” (G3) initiative provides financial support to cover tuition, fees and books to eligible Virginia students who complete a FAFSA.

Students in Virginia can receive one-on-one FAFSA assistance by scheduling a meeting through this link: https://calendly.com/fafsa-help

After scheduling a meeting, students will be connected with an access provider from Access College Foundation, ECMC’s The College Places, GReat Aspirations ScholarshiP Fund (GRASP), or the Virginia College Advising Corps.

About VirginiaCAN
VirginiaCAN is a non-profit that brings together and strengthens the many college-access organizations that serve the residents of Virginia.  VirginiaCAN partner organizations share a common goal: to enhance access to post-secondary education for residents of Virginia.

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It's not too late. Financial aid for college is available for Virginia's seniors.

The following article is from the Richmond Times-Dispatch

March 22, 2021

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If you’ve thrown up your hands attempting to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you’re not alone.

FAFSA completion rates are down almost 10% in Virginia as compared to the same date last year. That statistic by itself would be disconcerting, but it only tells part of the story. Decreases are prevalent for students who need financial aid the most.

High schools that serve a large number of low-income students are down 33%. Schools with higher populations of minority students are down 17%. Inequities that already were present in education continue to be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Though the decline is troubling, the good news is, it’s not too late. Money for college still is available, and several colleges and universities in Virginia pushed back their deadlines for applications and financial aid in recognition of the pandemic’s effects.

Virginia’s Community Colleges, firmly grounded in accessibility and affordability, maintain rolling deadlines. The governor’s new “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” (G3) initiative provides financial support to cover tuition, fees and books to eligible Virginia students who complete a FAFSA.

Given the exceptional quality of higher education institutions in the commonwealth and this year’s adjusted timelines, high school seniors have numerous options for pathways that will serve them well.

We know pathways are useless if too many barriers obstruct the way. Most people who begin a FAFSA are stymied by questions on the form.

This is where Virginia’s access providers can help. Now through June 30, students in Virginia can receive one-on-one FAFSA assistance by going to: https://www.virginiacan.org/fafsa

Schedule a meeting, and you will be connected with an access provider from Access College Foundation, Education Credit Management Corp.’s The College Places, GReat Aspirations Scholarship Program, the Virginia Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators or the University of Virginia’s Virginia College Advising Corps.

In the spirit of collective impact, these organizations have banded together to meet this critical FAFSA completion need for students and families across the commonwealth.

You also could find another provider that serves your school division or locality. There are several college access organizations in Virginia making a positive impact on postsecondary enrollment and completion, addressing opportunity gaps and working toward equity.

Education after high school is becoming more vital to the economic development and strength of our communities, and the health and well-being of our citizens within those communities.

Why should students and their families spend time on the FAFSA? According to a longitudinal study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 92% of seniors who completed the FAFSA enrolled in postsecondary institutions by the November following graduation.

Only 51% of seniors who did not complete a FAFSA did so. The difference is staggering. And understandable. It’s hard for most of us to process how to pay for anything that costs thousands of dollars.

FAFSA completion opens up several opportunities. If your family has substantial economic need, you could receive the Pell Grant, up to $6,495 for the 2021-22 academic year.

Pell grants do not need to be repaid except under a few circumstances, for instance, if you withdraw from the academic program for which the grant was given.

For those families with moderate income, FAFSA submission provides access to federal loans at low interest rates, the vehicle by which most students finance their education.

FAFSA completion also is a requirement for most scholarships, including those that are merit-based. And it unlocks institutional financial aid provided by colleges and universities, which truly can be the difference between a student attending or not.

Allow yourself a deep breath and then bring your hands back to the keyboard. You don’t have to tackle this alone. FAFSA completion is the most important step for students to find their footing on a college pathway, and Virginia’s college access providers are ready to guide the way.

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Turn extracurricular activities into scholarships

The following article is from U.S. News & World Report

January 28, 2021

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Extracurricular activities may be overlooked when it comes time to apply for college scholarships, but a student's passions and talents outside of the classroom can translate to significant financial awards.

Prospective and current students hoping to use scholarships to limit both out-of-pocket costs and student loan borrowing can start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to be considered for need-based financial aid. But to earn a scholarship for skills in fields like art or sports, students will need to do research – and some self-reflection.

Scholarships exist for all kinds of extracurricular activities and interests. Monique Adorno-Jiménez, a student success director for ECMC, a nonprofit organization that assists student loan borrowers, says students should create a "scholarship resume" to fully take advantage of all the scholarships that may be available to them.

"This helps a student really start looking at all of the parts of themselves," she says. "Put down your education, your work experience, your volunteer experience, your family responsibilities, your extracurricular activities, any awards and honors, and then any special skills or talents. Even if you're Excel proficient or you're an artist. It gives a much broader view of your abilities."

No interest or experience is too small, Adorno-Jiménez says.

Once a student has considered all of their interests and skills, they can begin the search. Merit scholarships awarded based on a student's passions and interests are numerous and can be found at the local, state and national levels. Both private and public organizations offer them.

The Archibald Rutledge Scholarship Program, for example, which rewards skills in creative writing, dance, music, theater or visual arts, is offered by the South Carolina Department of Education. High school seniors enrolled in a public school in South Carolina submit original compositions, process folios and other art samples for the chance to win one of five scholarships of approximately $2,000 each.

Many states offer similar scholarships that support students in the arts, and Anne Pressley, director of the office of standards and learning at the South Carolina Department of Education, says that supporting students in their artistic and extracurricular endeavors is essential to achieving the state's desired learning outcomes.

"What's extremely important are the talents and skills and interests of each individual student," Pressley says. "I've been a classroom teacher, as most of us at the state department where I work have, and we have experiences with students showing that a student's interests in the arts or extracurriculars can be the thing that keeps them in school, keeps them interested and keeps them connected."

To be successful in pursuing one of these scholarships, Pressley says, "it's about finding your passion, what truly energizes you as a student, and taking it as far as you can."

Students interested in sports can also apply for athletic scholarships, whether through an institution or from an outside organization.

While not all extracurricular activities will lead to a career, some scholarships and fellowships can give students the confidence to pursue their passion full time. Jeffery Allison, director of statewide programs and exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, notes that these programs can be a source not just of money but also of a community and network to support future goals.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship Program, for example, offers fellowships to student artists worth up to about $6,000. While many students major in a related field, Allison – a past fellowship recipient himself – says undergraduate and graduate students can use the money for anything, from art supplies and a new camera to even rent and groceries. The fellowship is also open to high school seniors who have been accepted into a postsecondary program.

"You join this club, this list of artists, since 1940 who have won, and many of them have gone on to be hugely famous," Allison says. "We don't have many people who win who are in a totally different major field; you might be majoring in something but then with a minor in photography or painting. And a lot of people end up pursuing a degree in art education to become a teacher. It's all about the work of art and the quality of the artwork."

Some scholarships require that students major in a certain area of study, experts note, and this can be an opportunity for students to find additional scholarship dollars based on their chosen academic area.

Ginny Butsch, community engagement manager at the Educational Theatre Association, says the Ohio-based organization's many scholarships are for students with an interest in the theater, even if it's not part of their career plan. Eligibility varies by scholarship, but opportunities are available to high school seniors and undergraduate and graduate students.

"Theatre teaches incredibly important skills that benefit any career path," Butsch wrote in an email. She encourages students involved in the theater "to do their research and apply for any scholarship they are eligible for, not just a generic Google search, but a deeper dive into the websites of organizations and associations that make musical theatre happen."

No matter a student's interests, whether theater, art or athletics, Adorno-Jiménez urges students to apply for as many scholarships as possible, including those related to volunteer activities and family responsibilities.

"The more you apply to, the higher the odds of actually receiving the scholarship money. I had one student apply to 32 scholarships – any part of who she was she looked for a scholarship in that – and she ended up getting 14," she says. "Even if it's just $500, three or four $500 scholarships add up."

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