Students entering Mesa College
Students entering Mesa College. Courtesy San Diego Community College District

This time of year, high school seniors are busy submitting their college applications with the hope and excitement of getting into their top school. However, for many students, the idea of going to college is limited because they do not have the financial resources or knowledge to pay for the high cost. It shouldn’t be that way, and it doesn’t have to be, because of financial aid available to students. 

When the fall semester begins, high school counselors are off and running to schedule students in classes, ensure that they are on track to graduate, and prepare students and families to begin the college and financial aid application process. With the new Assembly Bill 469, school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools are actually required to ensure that a 12th grade student who has not opted out, as specified, completes and submits a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the California Dream Act Application (CADAA).

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I’ll admit that when I was a practicing high school counselor, my fear around supporting students and families with the FAFSA/CADAA was high. I didn’t feel I had the knowledge to fully understand how to help, and I was not comfortable asking students personal questions about finances or citizenship status.

It wasn’t until I became a parent and went through the financial aid process with my son that I fully understood why I needed to make sure that the students I served completed this important document. My fears had to be put aside, and I needed to put myself in learning mode with our students and families to better understand how to best support and lead them through this process.

Last year, San Diego County had a FAFSA/CADAA completion rate of 53%, which was 1% below the state average. Our completion rate for foster youth and youth experiencing homelessness was one of the lowest in the state.

We know that this work cannot be asked of school counselors to monitor in isolation; school teams and families must be engaged in the process. Schools that have high FAFSA/CADAA completion rates have created a college-going culture where the entire staff collectively comes together to create a goal, talk about financial aid in their classes, and educate families about the process. It is a school-wide effort.

The financial aid application window opened this month, and we know that support is needed for students, parents, guardians, school counselors, teachers and staff, if we are to increase our school, district and countywide completion rates. At the San Diego County Office of Education, in collaboration with our community partners, we are committed to ensuring equity for all students, and that includes access to a four-year college or university if that is the path a student wants to take.

To ensure equity for all, we have developed resources for our high school and  K-8 school counselors because we know that the earlier we begin conversations about college and career, the more prepared our students will be when they get to high school.

It is my hope that in doing this work as a collective unit, we can begin to implement equitable practices across our county around financial aid. We want to ensure that no matter where our students are from or where they choose to attend school, they are all receiving the same services and have the same opportunities to fulfill their post-secondary dreams and goals.

Assembly Bill 469 is a large ask, but it is the right move to make to help all students understand and take advantage of their full options. I encourage all schools to ensure no child is ever discouraged because he or she didn’t know they had options. We can do this — we owe it to our students’ future.

Tanya Bulette is coordinator of K-12 school counseling services for the San Diego County Office of Education.