“I want to major in accounting. I plan to attend UT,” said 19-year old Shirley Almaraz, as she entered the library to finish her financial aid forms. “I know what I can do with it and I also like math. I also took a personality test and it said accounting and financial was one of my strengths.”
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) Hispanic outreach coordinator José Luna annually recruits financial aid and admissions professionals from Northwest Ohio colleges and universities to TPS high schools to help Latino seniors fill out their paperwork. The last in a series of Latino financial aid workshops was held Friday in the library at Woodward High School.
In some cases, the parents attend the sessions with their children, so the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be filled out properly online with help from college recruiters
Many Latino families have never filled out financial aid paperwork—and some teens never even consider college a viable option because they cannot afford tuition, room and board, and books.
“This is just to make sure kids are getting it done, because I heard 10 to 12 years ago kids say at the end of the year that they wanted to go to college, but didn’t have money,” said Luna. “I would ask them about the FAFSA and all the programs. Somehow it doesn’t register with them that there’s a deadline involved.”
“They can list up to ten schools on their (FAFSA) form. We’ve been doing this about eight years and have seen over the years increasing numbers of students who do attend (college),” said Connie Weaver from the Bowling Green State University Office of Financial Aid. “The biggest challenge is many parents don’t have their tax return done at this time, but you can estimate.”
Not only will Shirley Almaraz be the first in her family to attend college, she’ll be the first one to graduate high school. The second of ten children, the Woodward senior has succeeded with a 3.3 grade point average despite turmoil at home. Her mother died last year and her father was deported back to Matamoros, Mexico. Six of her siblings returned to Matamoros with her dad, although three have since returned. But three brothers and sisters—ages 6, 7, and 8—remain.
“It’s hard splitting time,” she said, while she lives part-time with an uncle and at other times with a grandparent so she can graduate on time. “It’s exciting at times, but it’s also stressful. My family’s pretty much happy for me.”
Because of her situation, Shirley had to fill out extra FAFSA paperwork. She’s also working to pursue whatever available scholarships she can find.
“I’ll be on the computer looking this weekend,” she said. “I usually have to get help from the outside. It makes me happy they want to help you get to college, no matter what college you wnt to go to. It makes me feel really good.”
Financial aid workshops previously were held at Waite, Start, Bowsher, and Rogers high schools. Luna sends a letter home to parents in both Spanish and English a month ahead of time and meets individually with each senior. The program has ensured that over fifty Latino high school seniors have an opportunity to receive federal financial aid.
“It’s a big issue, getting them to fill it out, because nowadays, you know all the kids with a 4.0 grade point average—you know they’re going to get it done,” Luna said. “But when we’re talking about kids with a 2.0 GPA, a 1.9, it’s not that they’re deficient intelligently, it’s just that they’re not in that mode. Here they are at the end of their career wondering what they’re going to do next.”
Luna stated that Owens Community College will accept all TPS student applicants who are eligible to receive a Pell Grant. Owens offers free tuition in those instances. Luna encourages students to fill out the FAFSA and apply to Owens “so they at least have something cooking at the end of the year.” Most are first-generation high school graduates who never have given higher education any thought.
“Many of them don’t have a clue (about college),” said Luna with a smile. “I know I didn’t when I graduated and there was no one telling me to do this or do that. I stumbled my way through.”
The University of Toledo offers a Blue-Gold Scholarship program to TPS students who graduate with at least a 3.0 GPA. That program is now in its third year.
About 30 high school seniors attended the session at Waite, according to Luna. Another 20 students went to the Start session, 15-20 students at Bowsher, and a handful went to the Rogers financial aid workshop. Luna also opened up the sessions to non-Latino students.
“I consider it encouraging. I consider my program the mop-up,” Luna said. “We’re just about getting it done. We don’t care who it is.”
TPS will graduate approximately 90 Latino students this spring. Luna estimates roughly half will attend college.
“They’ll at least get through the door. Retention is another matter,” Luna said, hinting he hands off those duties to higher education officials once students leave TPS. “I wish I could mother them through that, but I’ve got another crop of kids to deal with here (next year).”
The TPS Hispanic outreach coordinator stated his belief that Northwest Ohio colleges and universities do a good job at retention. But Luna also pointed out UT and TPS officials met last week to discuss ways to improve their retention efforts with students in the Blue-Gold scholarship program. He said Latino students outperform all other groups with a 62 percent retention rate into their junior year of college.
“That’s about equal to the general population retention at UT,” Luna said proudly, while admitting keeping students in college long enough to finish has been a long-standing problem everywhere. “I don’t think kids understand bridging that gap between high school and college.”
But Luna stated he tries to prepare kids for college by taking a tough stance with Latino students and emphasizing personal responsibility.
“I’m the old guy that likes to think you teach them to fish, rather than give them their fish, because ultimately they’re going to have to make it on their own,” he said. “I don’t baby children in any way or form. I’m going to give it to them straight. I’ll tell them what to do and if they don’t do it, it’s on them.”