When Nathan J. Daun-Barnett (BA ’95) was working as a residence hall director at Wisconsin’s Marquette University in the late ’90s, he noticed something troubling: The campus was surrounded by low-income students who didn’t—or couldn’t—attend the school. “It was at this point,” he says, “that I realized I wanted to figure out how to expand opportunities to a population of students who hadn’t had them historically.”
Daun-Barnett went on to receive his doctorate from the University of Michigan, then returned to Buffalo in 2008 as an assistant professor of higher education administration in UB’s Graduate School of Education. He never forgot his resolution, and in 2011, having by then determined that the complicated FAFSA form was a major obstacle to college for a significant number of low-income students, he launched the FAFSA Completion Project.
The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, gives thousands of students access to college money every year. But first you have to fill it out—and for many low-income students, that’s the rub. The form is long and complex. If a student’s parents don’t file taxes—and many low-income families don’t, for legitimate reasons—it’s even more complicated. Additionally, says Daun-Barnett, “a good number of the students we work with are independent. They’re adopted or under legal guardianship, have deceased parents, or are homeless.”
Daun-Barnett’s team of student and staff volunteers work individually with students and parents to complete the form. The project has been so successful, it has grown by leaps and bounds—from one school in 2011 to 14 public schools in 2012 (resulting in a 61 percent increase in the number of Buffalo Public School seniors completing the FAFSA on time) to 20 public and charter schools in 2013. This past year, Daun-Barnett and his team put in 2,600 service hours and touched two-thirds of the FAFSA forms filed in the district, leading to similar results as the prior year in the public schools and a surge in completed applications among charter school grads.
At BPS #198 International Prep School at Grover, six UB volunteers worked with students last year for more than three months. “Not only did the volunteers support students with the FAFSA,” says guidance counselor Peter Merrick, “they helped students with their college applications and even had personal conversations about life at college.” Those conversations will likely come in handy for many of those seniors, given that every single one of them completed the FAFSA on time.