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Low-income students don’t always apply for financial aid for college. How this Queens school is trying to change that.

Dispelling myths is the biggest challenge Anna Karabelas faces each year as the college counselor at Queens Technical High School. The career and technical education school — where last school year 76% of students came from low-income families — serves many first-generation Americans, she said. Many are the first in their families considering college or dealing with the application process — including figuring out how to pay for everything.

“Because of that lack of awareness, there’s also just a lot of misconceptions,” Karabelas said, reflecting on the process. “One of the things I get sometimes is, ‘Oh I have to pay it back,’ and they’re confusing loans with just, in general, financial aid.” (Aside from low-interest loans, financial aid can also come from grants and scholarships).

For four years, Karabelas has built a college and career planning team that holds events and reaches out to students to make them aware of the different pathways available after high school — a road many of her former students are embarked on now. It’s likely these concentrated efforts — and even the presence of a college counselor at all — that has made Queens Technical High School a top-completer of student financial-aid forms in city schools where more than half of the students come from low-income families, according to an analysis by the advocacy organization EducationTrust-New York.

It hosted a statewide “FAFSA Challenge,” encouraging schools where at least half of students come from low-income families to sign up seniors for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. A previous analysis found that schools with higher shares of low-income students — presumably the students who need financial aid the most — tend to have fewer students applying for college assistance.

But some schools, like Queens Tech, have bucked this trend and was one of a cool dozen that Ed-Trust recognized across the state. All Queens Tech seniors who were eligible to sign up for FAFSA did this school year, according to Ed-Trust.

We sat down with Karabelas to learn more about how she walks students through the college application and financial aid process, and why it’s so important to schools like hers.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Not every high school has a college counselor. Do you know why Queens Tech wanted to bring one in?

Because we as a school have been so focused on career and technical education, or CTE, from the beginning of its existence, and there was a gap. There are certain kids that are going through a particular pathway —  looking to join a union or the MTA — and then all these other students are interested in college or maybe don’t know of all the college pathways. And because it is a lot of work — the application process is a lot of work, the exploration process is a lot of work — they felt we need a designated person to start this process. Because when it comes to CTE, there’s obviously CTE teachers, there’s work-based coordinators, there’s assistant principals for the CTE. But when it came to the college piece, that’s where as a school we were lacking.

When you first got here, what were the immediate challenges involving student interaction that needed solutions?

I think one was even for the students to acknowledge that there was someone dedicated to them — and this purpose — in the building. Another challenge was just getting staff to understand that, ‘Oh, wow, we have a designated person on board now. I have unanswered questions — I can send students somewhere.’ Just getting that to be a part of our everyday culture. And then in terms of student engagement, just changing that mentality of, ‘Oh, I have CTE or am hoping for union membership or I’m getting my CTE endorsement in all these different certifications’ — there is a lot of kids who don’t want to go the CTE route — and getting them to think of their future… and that college could be another outcome, making that a part of the everyday conversation.

That’s really interesting because I feel like when you talk about CTE, people often assume the opposite: that too many people think college is the only endgame, which is why CTE has become more and more part of the conversation. 

Absolutely… my whole thing is balance and access, and letting students hopefully make a better informed choice for themselves and just having the people in school to have that conversation, whether it’s with other counselors, myself, their CTE teachers, to find what is that better fit. Because that CTE path for some students is perfect. And for other students, you know, they’re initially making that CTE choice when they’re in ninth or 10th grade. So they’re like 14 years old. And to just assume that a 14-year-old is going to be completely satisfied with their CTE outcome and choose that as a career path, it’s — I think it’s asking too much. I think the key here is that they’re getting exposed to career and career pathways, and what career entails, and then letting them choose what their best fit is.

So how do students make their way to you? Is everyone required to come see you at some point, or how does that happen?

So we’re a school of about 1,600 students from ninth to 12th grade, so that’s about 350 to 400 per grade. So mandating or requiring all students to see me is difficult because of how many there are. My push and that of our College and Career Planning team is trying to get the motion started with earlier grades. So this year, I started doing a bit more work with the junior class as a whole. Next year we’re going to have a little bit more work with the sophomores because the college process initially should begin, ideally, with the career exploration process. You can’t pick a major, you can’t pick a school, until you know a couple of pathways you might be interested in. So the 10th grade push — we will hopefully kick into gear next year.

The 11th graders get their first visits with me in the spring semester. I push into every junior class, into junior English classes, and I give them that basic College Application Process 101 conversation. Just what’s required, what are schools looking at, what are different types of financial aid that are out there and giving them that basic knowledge.

This year for the first time we separated the entire junior class into smaller groups and they met with me three times during their lunch period. To finally see every student, it was a six-to-eight week process. So in the smaller groups are where we dove in depth into discussing personal preferences, how yours might be different from a best friend’s — talking about how to identify schools that are a best fit for them. We looked into the College Board a little bit, how they should be looking at their research, what are other things they should be doing. So after that, juniors can, if they want, make one-on-one appointments with me. I have an online appointment maker on our website, and they could put in their name, what timeframe they would like, what day, and have an appointment set.

Did the lunch meetups increase the number of one-on-one appointments?

I’ve seen an increase, definitely, in students wanting to retake their SAT for the May/June exam — like right away. The amount of one-on-ones stayed the same, but the SAT increased.

Ed Trust has pointed out that rates of FAFSA completion are higher in schools in more affluent areas, which is a paradox — because students with the greatest financial need FAFSA the most. Is this something you’ve seen — and can you explain what may be behind it?

A lot of our families are immigrant families, the students being first- generation college bound. So those conversations just aren’t happening at home because the parents simply don’t know. The way things are done in their home countries may be completely different. So families just aren’t aware — I think that is the number one challenge. And then because of that lack of awareness, there’s also just a lot of misconceptions about financial aid. One of the things I get sometimes is, ‘Oh, I have to pay it back.’ They’re confusing loans with just, in general, financial aid. And I’m always correcting those statements and really educating students on the differences between grants and loans and FAFSAs and the state Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP. So I think that’s the biggest challenge.

For students who come from families that are undocumented, it has gotten a little bit better with our school specifically — we explain that just because your parents are undocumented doesn’t mean that you can’t get FAFSA and TAP. So there’s that misunderstanding as well, and students are like ‘Oh no, my parents don’t have a social security number. I can’t come forward and apply from FAFSA.’ I say, ‘You can — you were born here—it’s OK.’ So our students have been understanding a lot more, and each year we’re overcoming that, which is great.

Since you did a relatively good job of getting kids to sign up for FAFSA, can you talk, specifically, about the steps to making that happen?

In October we start our CUNY application. But right away, I inform them that FAFSA’s opened. At our college fair that month, I have a registration available so students and their families can sign up for FAFSA completion assistance. We had two evenings in November when students and their families could come in and get a checklist of everything they have to bring.

Throughout November and December, I’m available during lunch hours in our library because we have like 20 computers up there, and students can walk in during a specific day. In addition to that, right next to my office I have a small computer room with four computers, and students can come in during free lunch periods or other free time to work on their stuff. I encourage them all to fill out their FAFSA online and then come to me to look it over.

Then I run my report. I track everything through a database called Enroll, so once a student does complete something or I’ve looked it over, I log it into their specific folder. I’ll pinpoint, for example, who’s completed a CUNY application but never filed a FAFSA. Those students will now get a memo sent to their class or phone calls home: ‘We see you completed a college application but we don’t have a record of your FAFSA. Please come so we can ensure you get your money for college.’

Every student must complete at least a CUNY application regardless of what pathway they are pursuing as a backup, and then a FAFSA and a TAP application. If I don’t see that, I reach out:  “Part of your exit plan is missing. We need to complete all this prior to getting ready for graduation.”

That is for every student?

It’s for every senior. And then as we get into the spring, especially for our students who are working toward union membership, I ease up a bit, as long as they get into the construction skills program, and it seems that they will wait it out for a union to call. I’ll ease up on FAFSA then.

What are some of the challenges that still exist as you look ahead?

The seriousness of deadlines and completing things — and that’s a student-wide issue, even in the classroom. I don’t know if it stems from middle school or the difficulty in transitioning from middle school to high school — but just this idea that deadlines do exist, and a timeline is implemented for a reason.

Come February everything should be done, but I always have a ton of students coming in that haven’t done this or that, or I reached out to them five times and they haven’t completed FAFSA and haven’t come to see me. And there are other challenges that students face, where college or the college process isn’t a priority for them because of household responsibilities or other things going on at home. You know, even from the parents’ perspective —yes, they want their students to do well academically and graduate high school, but parents also need help at home taking care of younger siblings or other responsibilities.

There’s also a lot of mental health issues coming up in the schools. A lot. So for a student that’s struggling with some type of issue, being on point with the college process may not be their priority.

We’re lucky enough — this is our first year — we’ve been able to have a mental health clinic in our building that we can refer students to. But it has to start from younger years.

This story was originally published on https://www.chalkbeat.org/

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