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Easing the Agony of College Admission


Many teenagers returning to high school or secondary school this year have started making plans to go to college. But the college application and financial aid forms are so tedious and complex that many other teens will ignore the whole process. Now, there are some new efforts to include them.

The cost of going to college in the United States goes up every year. Annual tuition and fees currently range from about $6,000 at state-supported, public universities to as much as $40,000 at the best private schools -- according to the non-profit education-monitoring group, the College Board.

Dean Nicole Hurd at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, who monitors college enrollment for U.Va, says that, "If you look at the price tag, there's such 'sticker shock' out there. A lot of people don't realize there's financial aid."

Hurd says that for most low-income families, affordability should not be a problem. She says there's a lot of college money available - especially for needy students -- in the form of scholarships, grants and loans from the federal, state, and local governments as well as private, charitable organizations.

Hurd says the problem is that most Americans find the college admission and financial-aid application process bewildering and daunting. "It's a fulltime job applying to college. A lot of this has to do with stressors in life. For parents, you've got jobs, kids, [providing] food, things to worry about. How are you going to sit down and fill out a form with your child that is so intense? I think it's true for all young people."

But especially so for youngsters from low-income backgrounds, who may not have an adult in their lives to help fill out forms like the FAFSA.

FAFSA is an acronym for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a questionnaire that students are required to send to the federal Department of Education to prove eligibility for financial aid.

Nicole Hurd says many students and parents dread it. "If you look at a FAFSA form, it's over a hundred questions. Some of them don't seem very relevant because they ask you about a criminal past. It scares people. It's like filling out a tax form. And a lot of people have family situations that aren't cut and dried. So it becomes very intimidating if you don't know where a parent is, does that mean you can't get financial aid? So there are a lot of reasons why students don't finish FAFSA forms."

Says Hurd: "I think the statistics are that last year one-point-four million students started FAFSA forms and didn't finish them."

FAFSA scared 18-year old Pebel Segura of Alexandria, Virginia. "I had so many questions," she says. "I didn't know about the financial aid process. I didn't know about FAFSA at all."

Another student, LaNee Johnson, says she didn't have anybody at home but her grandmother to help her. "I knew that my grandmother wasn't going to be around and show me what to do."

But both of these Virginia residents got into college this year and were awarded considerable financial assistance -- and college enrollment is up for a growing number of high school seniors around the state -- thanks to a new state program called college guide.

With funding from the Jack Kent Cooke philanthropic foundation, Dean Nicole Hurd of the University of Virginia has recruited and trained about 25 U.Va. graduates for a new profession in higher education called "college guide." The recent graduates, most 22 to 23 years old, attend a rigorous six-week training course at U.Va. on admission and financial aid procedures. Each college guide is then assigned for a year to a high school in the state, particularly schools where many students come from low-income, single-parent families and need the one-on-one attention.

One of the college guides is 23-year old Mark Temekjian, who recently set up an office at T-C Williams High School and in the first days of classes, went around introducing himself to many of the 15-hundred students.

A typical introduction: "Hey, my name is Mark. I'm here to help you guys out -- give you something that maybe wasn't available to you before and can really help you get through this process all year."

Mark says his daily routine will include "looking over the shoulder of a student at a computer screen, helping them navigate a web site, the FAFSA web site, or through any given university's web site -- to find out what programs they offer. Maybe actually helping fill out their application. Doing a scholarship search [on the Internet]. That's a huge deal. I might be bouncing between computers, helping students out. That's what I expect to be doing with the students."

Susan Yowell runs the financial aid office at T-C Williams and says Mark is playing a valuable role helping her office meet students' needs. "Our focus has been primarily on providing scholarships and we've done that in a very good way. However, the college guide program added something that's very, very important -and that was the personal one-on-one advising that college guides have been trained to do."

Yowell says T-C -- like most high schools -- has a regular staff of guidance counselors, but they're overloaded with work.

"Typically," she says, "a high school guidance counselor in the state of Virginia has somewhere between 300 to 400 students in their caseload. They do discuss college-going issues and applications. But they don't have the time to sit down and find out the individual circumstances of each student."

College guides receive a ten-thousand-dollar a year stipend and housing money from the University of Virginia.

Meeting recently on the U.Va. campus, many said they chose the work more in the spirit of service than for the money.

"I feel so inspired right now," said U.Va. graduate Virginia Chandler. "I feel like I'm definitely in a place of purpose."

"About a year ago," said guide Amber Turner, "I didn't know what I was going to do with my life." Paulin Cheatham says he feels honored to help: "Some parents have never received a high school diploma. You're thinking about helping a student applying to go to college. It's such a huge step for the families. It's immeasurable what you're doing for them."

And Michelina DelGizzio says she's "happy" to get a chance to "change the world" -- one high school student at a time.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is funding U.Va.'s college-guide program with a 2-year, one million dollar grant, has invited more than a hundred institutions of higher learning across the country to apply for similar grants -- and create their own program based on the U.Va. model.

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