Success Counselor Ali Lincoln and her student, Robert

Senior Success Counselor Ali Lincoln and her student, Robert

It’s financial aid renewal season for Bottom Line Success counselors, and as many of our first-year students are finding out, it’s something that happens every year of college. Initially, it seems like a piece of cake, since there’s only one school to worry about instead of the ten schools they applied to last year.  However, financial aid renewal is a multi-step process for most of our students that typically drags on throughout the whole semester. Even within the same school, some students have different requirements, and my email inbox has been steadily filling with panicked messages about missing documents, requirements that have already been fulfilled (or so a student thought), and upcoming deadlines.

Counselors start by looking at deadlines for each school that they work with, and make sure to schedule time to help students file their initial FAFSA before each deadline. Essentially, resubmitting information from the current school year’s Student Aid Report shows intent to attend and receive aid the following school year.  Schools want to ensure that each student receives the aid that they deserve and they each decide how the student proves their income.  The school may require an online or paper form sent, a tax transcript submitted, CSS Profile, or IDOC be completed to confirm income.  Accordingly, Bottom Line counselors review these ever-changing financial aid applications with our students.

After students and their households have received 2012 W2s, 1099s, and filed their taxes, counselors help students update their FAFSAs. Students may be selected for a process called verification, and be required to submit additional forms, their passport, or tax transcripts. Some students are able to use the Data Retrieval Tool, which directly links tax information from the IRS to the FAFSA. Not every student can use this, and then they need to request tax transcripts online, over the phone, or in person. Often, the deadlines for these follow-up steps aren’t as clear as the priority financial aid deadline at a school, but delays in these steps can severely affect a student’s aid for the following year.

Financial aid renewal is an intimidating process; missing a step or turning in something late jeopardizes a student’s ability to pay for school. Bottom Line counselors diligently help students through every step of this long, annual process, and we’re also working to help our students become better self advocates and take on more personal responsibility when it comes to financial aid. We’re helping them stay on top of deadlines, coaching them through calls with financial aid, showing them where to find the forms they need and how to fill them out, and following up to make sure that all of their questions are answered. It’s a lot of work, but staying in school and on track to graduate is a great motivator!

– Ali Lincoln

Senior Success Counselor – Worcester, MA

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kendall blog pickIn the Boston office we have 503 high school students that Bottom Line is helping through the college admissions and financial aid processes.  Most of the high school seniors that we work with have packaged their college applications and placed their star on our “I Hit Submit!” wall.  In fact by December 21,492 of our students had completed their applications.  We have switched gears for the most part and are focusing on financial aid (ie the FAFSA and the CSS Profile).

A few of our students, however, are still in the process of applying to college.  In the case of my student, Stefani, the path to putting her star on the “I Hit Submit!” wall was a tough one.  In the fall of her senior year, difficult family circumstances caused Stefani to fall behind in school to the point where she had to postpone the college application process in order to focus on passing her high school classes.  While she would likely graduate from high school, she did not think she could go to college.  She was told by many adults in her life that that perhaps a year or two at community college after high school would be the best path for her. 

 

Not knowing this, I continued to reach out to Stefani asking her to come back to Bottom Line and to see if she wanted help applying for college.  Sometimes the most important thing I do as a Bottom Line Counselor is provide steady, positive coaching, telling my students that they can do it.

When I sent Stefani an email after winter break to ask her where she was at and when she may want to meet, she was in a completely different place.  She was no longer the overwhelmed student who had given up the dream of attending a four-year college.  She told me that her mindset had completely changed and that, despite the challenging circumstances in her life, she had started to turn things around in school and was no longer in danger of not graduating. 

 Then, she asked me if it was too late for her to apply to college.  While she was literally months behind her peers, we were able to work together and she was able to make many of her colleges February 1st deadlines.  Although her colleges’ application process has not followed the traditional route here at Bottom Line, in a few short days Stefani was finally able to put her star on our “I Hit Submit” wall – a testament to her perseverance.

– Kendall Hiedman

Boston Access Counselor

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Deb blog picSupporting students through the financial aid process has always been an integral part of Bottom Line’s services. Each January and February, counselors are busy meeting with students to submit their FAFSAs (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS Profiles, and sometimes additional verification materials to make sure that they secure financial aid awards from their schools.

Here in New York, though, things look a little different. There’s a state-wide college access program in which all public colleges and many private colleges participate, collectively referred to as “Opportunity Programs.” The program was developed by the state legislature in the 1960s to provide access to higher education for the “educationally and economically disadvantaged” students in New York State. The great news is that this gives many Bottom Line students the chance to be admitted to colleges where they otherwise might not get accepted to because of grades and test scores.

The other part of this process, however, is that before students can officially be admitted to one of these Opportunity Programs, they must provide financial verification to prove that they are in fact “economically disadvantaged.” For some students, this process is pretty straightforward. They get their parents’ tax forms, fill out some paperwork, and send them off.

However, for those of our students who have more complicated family situations or whose parents receive public benefits, verifying family income becomes a much more complex process. We are coaching students to compile a whole host of financial documents that they have never heard of before. We are tracking down 1099s and W-2s from agencies and employers; we are helping students find a notary to sign their non-tax filer form; we are on the phone with families to compile all sorts of legal and financial documents.  Plus, spaces in these Opportunity Programs fill up on first-come, first-serve basis, so time is of the essence.

Financial aid can often be a frustrating and time-consuming process.  More importantly, financial aid is a critical piece of our students’ future success.  When all the pieces come together after a lot of hard work, it is fulfilling to see students get accepted to great colleges and receive the financial aid they deserve.

– Deborah Steinberg

Bottom Line Counselor

New York

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Justin Strasburger - Worcester Site Director

Justin Strasburger – Worcester Site Director

It’s no secret that here at Bottom Line, we love data! In my mind, the best use for our data is to help us evaluate our programs, make necessary adjustments, and ensure the highest quality service for our students. It was with this in mind that, last summer, we took a look at the way we track the services we provide our college students.

Tracking our Success program poses a challenge because each student requires such individualized support. Without good data, it is hard to see patterns that allow us to take a more proactive approach with our students. What we came up with was a system to formalize the services we were providing to students: Success Service Plans. The concept was pretty straightforward: counselors would be able to plan out a semester’s worth of goals and corresponding services for each student and track them in our database. This allows counselors to think ahead and keep track of any follow up that needs to happen.

The Service Plan system we developed also provides us with a huge amount of data to better understand our students’ needs and our program’s capacity to meet these needs. A good example of this is the way we plan out campus visits. In the past, we have planned campus visits by school year and DEAL (Degree, Employability, Aid, and Life) color status (Green, Yellow, and Red).

We  allocated roughly three in-person meetings for 1st year students and students who were Red or Yellow. Typically, we had two in-person meetings with Green students. While this has never been set in stone, this assumption was necessary from a planning standpoint so that we could allocate our time appropriately. We all recognized that it was not as simple or clear-cut as saying that all students get two or three on-campus visits. Some may need more in-person meetings, while some may need less (but potentially more follow-up services). Without clear data, though, it was difficult for us to know if these assumptions made sense. Introducing Success Service Plans for each student has allowed us to truly move our program away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

While we are still completing our biannual assessment process, I have began to run some reports to see what the Success Service Plan data can tell us about the Fall 2012 semester. Here is what I found:

¨       Bottom Line’s 1,391 Success students (this does not include students who are currently not assigned to a counselor) received 8,876 total services, an average of 6.38 services per student.

¨       Of these services, 5,523 (or 59%) were in-person services (either occurring on campus or in our offices). This is a per student average of 3.76 in-person services (already above the 3 campus visits we have planned for our neediest students).

¨       The percent of total services provided by class year, is pretty close to the percent of total students by class year with the exception of Seniors. For example, 1st years account for 36% of Bottom Line’s students and accounted for 38% of the total services. Seniors account for 12% of Bottom Line’s students but accounted for only 6% of the total services. This is not terribly surprising as part of our work with Seniors is to help them become more self-reliant. This means that they likely required less follow-up services.

¨       Our Red (22%) and Yellow (22%) students received far more in-person services than Green students (14%).  On average Red students had 4.51 in-person services and Yellow students received 3.79 in-person services.  This information will help us to better plan out our campus visit needs.

I also took a look at services completed by college attending. To avoid small sample sizes, let’s consider colleges where Bottom Line has at least 25 students. We have 18 schools that fit this description: 10 public and 8 private. Despite this fairly even distribution of public vs. private schools, services were not as evenly distributed. The top 6 schools in terms of average services provided per student are all public schools. This is likely due to a higher concentration of Red, Yellow, and 1st year students at these schools. We can use this information to potentially allocate more time to a school like UMass-Lowell, where students required an average of 5.31 in-person services, than a school like Northeastern University, where students required an average of 2.66 in-person services.  It also shows that we need to do further analysis to make sure we are adequately serving all our students.

In a lot of ways, this data confirms our assumptions. It is important, however, that we are not working off of assumptions and instead base our plans off of data.  This body of information becomes increasingly valuable as Bottom Line continues to grow. As we expand into new markets and grow the number of students we are working with, thoughtful planning will be very important. While moving to the Service Plan system took some adjusting, I am confident that it will continue to prove a useful tool for counselors to more thoughtfully plan out their semesters, and for management and program development teams to better plan our curriculum and program implementation.

 

Justin Strasburger

Worcester, MA- Site Director

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Bottom Line prides itself on being proactive about the services that we provide to our students.  Our goal is to empower staff at Bottom Line to think critically about our services using the data we collect during the school year. We want to ensure we are supporting our students in the best possible way.  This past spring, Worcester College Access Program Manager Michelle Easton took a closer look at our students’ financial aid data.  Michelle was curious to see how the decisions a high school senior makes regarding financial aid impacts their likelihood of graduating from college.  The result is our first Annual Interesting Report (AIR for short).

An excerpt from our first Annual Interesting Report:

“Financial aid can make or break a college education.  Despite having the best grades and work ethic, a student who is unable to pay for college will be unable to continue their education.  This seems so obvious, and yet many of the students we work with at Bottom Line struggle to fund their education.  Many of our students and their families try their hardest to make college a reality, but are often unable to sustain such great expenses year after year.  In order to best advise our high school students in their final college choices, I wanted to dig deeper and fully understand how financial aid impacts our students.  In the spring of 2012, I sifted through our data to analyze over 130 students’ financial aid outcomes, and confirmed that financial hardship had a significant, negative impact on college graduation rates.”

The complete report is available here: 2012 Winter AIR – What Effect Does Financial Aid Have on College Graduation Rates

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Samantha Louis, Bridgewater State University '11, shares her college experiences with Bottom Line.

During a video interview conducted last fall, Samantha Louis—a senior at Bridgewater State University who will graduate this spring with a degree in Psychology—was asked what might have gone differently if she hadn’t worked with Bottom Line. She described the benefits of campus visits and help filling out the FAFSA, and ultimately replied that she probably would have enrolled in a community college rather than the 4-year university she currently attends.

This isn’t the first time a Bottom Line student has given this answer. Jeanette Sanchez, a senior studying Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, said that she would have gone to community college because it had a lower price tag. But with a 4.5 high school GPA and a goal of earning a bachelor’s degree in writing, Jeanette was already well-suited for directly enrolling in a 4-year college. In education lingo, Samantha and Jeanette both said they would have “undermatched” if they had not come to Bottom Line for help with college applications.

The concept of undermatching has been talked about more and more since the release of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, written by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson. Undermatching basically means that a student doesn’t enroll in the best college that he/she could have. This problem is particularly prevalent among students from low-income households or the first generation of their family to attend college. As economics columnist David Leonhardt recapped in The New York Times, “about half of low-income students with a high school grade-point average of at least 3.5 and an SAT score of at least 1200 do not attend the best college they could have. Many don’t even apply.”

So why is undermatching a problem? The National Center for Educational Statistics released a study in December 2010 that states only 12% of students who start at community colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Of the first-time, public 2-year college students who transferred to a 4-year college, 29% attained a bachelor’s degree and 15% remained enrolled at a 4-year college. While many community colleges have effective transfer programs and continue to build partnerships with 4-year colleges, on a broad national scale, your chances of earning a bachelor’s degree are higher if you initially enroll in a 4-year college. In many ways, this is a shorter and less complex journey. For this reason, if your goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree, it makes sense to enroll directly in a 4-year college if you can.

To ensure that the low-income/first-generation students who are qualified to enroll directly into a 4-year college do so, they need a knowledgeable guide to lay out their feasible college options. Having an informed mentor allows students to make decisions based on all the information—information they don’t necessarily have access to through their immediate friends and family or, in some cases, their high schools. By building a relationship with a counselor, these students have someone who will lead them step by step through the inconceivably complex world of higher education.

But undermatching isn’t the only danger for low-income/first-generation students. Helping a student get to the right college is just the first step. Samantha illustrated this when she explained that Bottom Line was on campus every year helping her fill out the FAFSA. She insisted she would have had student loans if it weren’t for this help.

When asked what motivated her to succeed, Samantha said her mother and the fact that she is a minority. “I don’t want to be one of those statistics,” she said. If there’s anything to be learned from Bottom Line students, it’s how ambitious and resilient you have to be to succeed in today’s higher education system. Bottom Line students show that undermatching or dropping out of college doesn’t occur from any lack of motivation or effort.

Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson said they think undermatching is caused by “a combination of inertia, lack of information, lack of forward planning for college, and lack of encouragement.” To address this wide range of reasons, the advice low-income and first-generation students receive needs to be holistic: academic, financial, vocational, and personal. This need is particularly apparent this month as high school seniors from the Class of 2011 are making final decisions about where they will attend college during the next 4 or more years.

While we have a long way to go before our public schools and higher education systems completely adapt to accommodate the needs of the modern-day student, it’s comforting to know that there are solutions brewing, some of them as seemingly simple as offering a one-on-one counselor.

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Since my last blog, a lot has changed as far as college applications go. After getting called for my third POSSE interview, I decided that Denison was not the right choice for me and politely declined the opportunity. I came to this decision due to the distance of the school from Boston. Ohio is pretty far for a hometown girl.

However, declining this scholarship worries me about the financial aspect of college. I think that I need to apply to many other scholarships in order to afford tuition. My FAFSA meeting with Bottom Line is coming up next week and I am anxious to get it done accurately and as soon as possible.

The farthest school on my college list is in Syracuse, New York. My top-choice school is still Boston College, but I am open to attending any of the other eight colleges that I applied to, which includes Syracuse, Bentley, and Boston University. Remembering my college list incontrovertibly keeps me from catching senioritis… Well, for now it does. =]

Yaritza

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It’s financial aid season! That means time for college students to fill out FAFSAs and CSS profiles. Applying for financial aid can be daunting and confusing, particularly if you’re from a family that is unfamiliar with the process. Since applying for financial aid is somewhat complex, there’s many misconceptions about how paying for college actually works. Below are the five common myths that Bottom Line counselors often debunk for students.Student-Counselor Meeting

1) My family doesn’t have any money, so I can’t afford to go to college.

All college students are eligible for financial aid, which will help you pay for college! To determine how much you and your family pay for your education, colleges and the federal government have you calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This lets them know about how much you are eligible to receive in financial aid, based on you and your family’s income, savings, and other indicators. So the less money your family has, the more aid you should expect to receive for college.

2) My dream college costs nearly $40,000 a year—I can’t afford that!

Just because a college has a high price tag doesn’t mean that you can’t afford it. For some colleges, you will only have to pay the amount calculated for your EFC. For other colleges, there will be a gap between your EFC and the college’s price tag. If there’s a gap, you can always advocate with the college’s financial aid office and apply for outside scholarships.

3) Public colleges are always more affordable than private colleges.

On the contrary, some private colleges award “full need” financial aid packages. That means they provide students with enough grants and low-interest loans to make up the difference between their family’s EFC and the school’s cost of attendance.

4) The only way I can get money for college is by having perfect grades.

Colleges and the federal government award scholarships, grants, and low-interest loans based solely on financial need—that’s what financial aid is! Merit-based scholarships and grants are awarded separately from financial aid packages.

5) I was awarded $5,000 in work-study, so the rest of my tuition expenses are covered.

Not so fast—work-study is money that you have to earn throughout the semester… by checking students into the dining hall, logging packages in the mail room, or answering phones at an administrative office. You can’t subtract this money from the bill that’s due at the beginning of the semester, since it will take you all semester to earn the money. In addition, you only get paid for the number of hours that you work. While you’ve been awarded $5,000 in work-study, you may only have time in your schedule to earn $4,000 of this award.

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