Schools cited for improved financial aid applications

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Capital News Service 

LANSING —The battle to get more high school students into college starts with more financial aid applications, and some schools are winning that battle, the Michigan College Access Network says, because of their counselors.

The network recently cited Niles High, Hazel Park High School in Hazel Park,Central Academy in Ann Arbor and nine others for achieving the most-improved completion rates among schools of their size.

Regional winners include Pickford High School in Chippewa County, Johannesburg-Lewiston High School in Otsego County, J.W. Sexton High School in Lansing and St. Patrick Catholic School in Clinton County. Graduating seniors who complete the FAFSA application are 84% more likely to immediately enroll in postsecondary education, according to the National College Access Network. 

FAFSA, the free application for federal student aid, covers loans, grants and work-study programs. 

Almost $100 million in Pell grant funding went unclaimed last year after an estimated 25,000 eligible Michigan students didn’t file a FAFSA, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Whitmer congratulated 13 schools for improving their FAFSA completion rates, after challenging schools to increase their rate to 75% in 2020. “Completing FAFSA can be the deciding factor of a student going to college,” said Taylor Nelson, a Niles High School counselor. 

“FAFSA can be overwhelming and sometimes all it takes is to help them step by step through the process,” Nelson said. 

Molly Brawley, Niles principal, gives Nelson all the credit for the school’s 24% improvement of FAFSA completions this year.

“She made FAFSA Valentine’s Day cards, created bulletin boards and made sure every last student who even thought about college completed a FAFSA form,” Brawely said of Nelson.

That one-on-one attention can sometimes be hard to find in Michigan, which has729 high school students for every counselor, the third-highest ratio in the nation, according to the American School Counselor Association.

Nelson said she wouldn’t be able to help her students without support from AmeriCorps and the Michigan College Access Network.

Nelson was hired through their Advise Michigan program that has served 72 schools.“Many students, especially first-generation college students, are overwhelmed by FAFSA and don’t even know where to start,” said Nelson, who was a first-generation college graduate herself.

Mahassin Harp, a counselor at Central Academy, a charter school, said 

first-generation and low-income high school students need individual attention because their parents might have never completed the form before or don’t feel comfortable sharing their financial history.

Harp said she gave her students individual attention, which helped increase Central’s FAFSA completion rate by 44% during the past year.

Individual attention is paramount because 80% of Central Academy students are eligible for free or reduced lunches and many are immigrants whose first language isn’t English, according to principal Luay Shalabi.

Reem Hasan, a senior at Central Academy, decided between getting one-on-one attention at a small school and the diversity of experiences at a large school like Pioneer High, a nearby public school of around 2,000 students. 

“Central Academy helped me keep my Muslim heritage and culture, but you can be trapped inside that bubble,” Hasan said.

“Pioneer might have offered a more diverse set of people and prepared me better for college and the future,” she said, adding that she couldn’t ask for a better school than Central Academy.

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