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Using the Latino college experience to revamp financial aid

As the nation grapples with how to increase the number of adults with college degrees, some say it is time to re-examine and redesign federal financial aid.  Studying Latino students can help frame this issue to better serve this current generation, says Dr. Deborah Santiago, Vice President of Policy and co-founder of Excelencia in Education. Santiago just presented a  Gates Foundation-funded white paper, “Using a Latino Lens to Reimagine Aid Design and Delivery,” in Capitol Hill.

So who is the typical financial aid student today?  While financial aid was created with a “traditional” recipient in mind – an 18-year-old currently living with parents and applying to go away to a four-year college – the reality is quite different. “Students today could best be described as post-traditional,” says Santiago. “They may be going to college part-time, working thirty or more hours a week, attending multiple institutions including online courses,  and more likely to be Hispanic,” Santiago says.  The problem is some of these factors currently exclude students from receiving a consistent financial aid package which could be the difference between college success and completion.

RELATED:  How to increase Latino college enrollment in 2013

In 2010, for example, over 70 percent of part-time Latino college students under the age of 24 were employed, and the majority were working 20 to 34 hours a week.  Moreover, about one out of three Latino college students worked more than 35 hours a week, similar to students overall.   Yet studies show that working over 20 hours a week, especially off campus, lowers the chances of college success and completion. Excelencia conducted a study in South Texas which showed on-campus work-study programs were effective at keeping students more involved in school.

One recommendation, says the Excelencia report, is to increase and expand work-study programs for low-income students, and make sure existing funding formulas reflect the new geographical realities. Currently funding is more skewed toward institutions in the Northeast, says Santiago, even though much of the population growth in new Latino students is in the Southwest. Students would also benefit from knowing the amount of aid they would get over 4 years, instead of waiting year to year.

Lowering the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, of low-income families, would also increase college opportunity.  “Right now it does not mirror the characteristics of post-traditional students,” says Santiago. The current EFC calculation for a Latino family making $50,000 or less is still almost $10,000 a year.

Another reality is that 43 percent of students need remedial college courses.  “Perhaps it is because they have to refresh their algebra after being out of school for a few years while they worked before they went to college,” says Santiago.  “Or perhaps students come from a faulty k-12 system,” she says.  While Santiago says there are bad remedial programs – “we should only be looking at evidence-based successful programs,” she says – the reality is that the current limits on funding remedial education do not reflect the reality of what students need to successfully complete college, and should be reassessed.

But perhaps one of the most important – yet cost-effective – changes the federal government could make right now, says Santiago, is to improve access to information for families.

“Better access on the college financial process would not cost us money, but it does requires intentionality; it has to be targeted at Latino families,” says Santiago.  The federal government can do a better job  partnering with networks of college counselors and community organizations, or using Facebook and social media.

RELATED: Replicating Latino college success, one program at a time

Texas Democratic Congressman Joaquín Castro praised the report, saying “it is critical that we review and improve federal financial aid policies that reflect the needs of all of today’s students, recognizing that Latinos have the fastest-growing enrollment in higher education.”

Washington is grappling with tight budgets. Nevertheless, the report states, now is the time to prepare the policy “infrastructure” in order to better prepare these students.

“We must ensure that federal financial aid policies meet their needs,” said Texas Democratic Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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