BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When Mary Ross started her job as college and
career readiness counselor three years ago at Buffalo’s
Burgard High School, she woke up in the middle of the night
dreaming about FAFSA applications. Almost every one of her students
was eligible for substantial financial aid, but the FAFSA form
— the complex and intricate federal aid application —
gave Ross nightmares.
“Then in came Dr. Daun-Barnett on his white horse,”
says Ross, speaking of the University at Buffalo’s FAFSA
Completion Project and its director, Nathan J. Daun-Barnett.
Daun-Barnett is the Graduate School of Education (GSE) faculty
member whose mission is to significantly raise the number of
Buffalo Public School students completing the FAFSA on time.
Ross doesn’t waste any words.
“The FAFSA Completion Project gave us the opportunity to
give each and every one of our students the help they needed to
start this tedious process.
“Dr. Daun-Barnett’s GSE graduate students came in
twice a week for a few months and sat down individually with our
seniors,” Ross says. “They made phone calls to parents
and guardians, and helped with assistance. I believe they were at
times very surprised at how many different hurdles we
The guy riding that white horse has more of a reserved
academic’s methodical and logical problem-solving
demeanor—one that differs from Ross’ passion for the
Daun-Barnett analyzes the three barriers preventing students
from attending college: academic preparation, cost and finding
information to help families through the college choice process,
which can be daunting. He has made it his mission to make a
difference in the last two of these barriers, and carries out the
task with the precision of someone who knows how to make the system
The FAFSA project, which began on a modest scale at
Buffalo’s South Park High School in 2011, has been expanded
to more schools in recent years due to the Buffalo Public
School’s participation in the “Say Yes to
“In order to be eligible (for ‘Say Yes to
Education’ tuition scholarships to select colleges), students
have to complete their FAFSA and TAP applications,” Daun
Barnett says. “The district needed to find a way to keep this
door open for its students, and we developed a plan to scale up
very quickly for the district.
“We also are expanding because the charter schools are
eligible for the ‘Say Yes to Education’ tuition
guarantee, and their students need similar levels of support as
their Buffalo Public School counterparts.”
The FAFSA project is just one example of how UB is working with
the Buffalo Public Schools. UB also is leading a coalition of
partners in Western New York in a $9.8 million National Science
Foundation grant-funded project to transform how science is taught
in the Buffalo Public Schools.
As director of the FAFSA project, Daun-Barnett heads a team of
students, professional staff and volunteers whose goal is nothing
less than finding ways for thousands of low-income families to find
money that literally can be the difference between making it
— or not making it — to college.
An assistant professor in the UB Department of Educational
Leadership and Policy, Daun-Barnett, believes that academic
preparation is the key element for prospective college students.
“But the financial piece is the only way we’re going to
keep the door open to low-income families,” he notes.
“Cost is obviously an important factor for attending
college. Middle- and upper-income families will go to college.
While cost will affect where they decide to go, they will go
“For low-income families, cost may be the reason they
don’t go at all,” he says.
Standing at the gate of affordability is the FAFSA, the federal
financial aid application form families must fill out before they
become eligible for the vast majority of financial aid available to
prospective college students. Applicants quickly learn the simple
rule of the financial aid game: No FAFSA, no financial aid. And
Daun-Barnett’s project already is, at the very least, a major
contributing factor to the significant increase in the numbers of
Buffalo Public School seniors correctly completing this complicated
and sometimes frustrating form on time.
Last year, the number of seniors completing their FAFSA forms on
time increased 61 percent, Daun-Barnett says. Ask any high school
counselor in the 14 high schools that welcomed members of
Daun-Barnett’s team last year and they’ll tell you that
the FAFSA Completion Project was a big reason for that.
“The FAFSA, like the college application, can be pretty
overwhelming,” says Daun-Barnett. “And in our efforts
to make information about college broadly available, we’ve
actually made it more complicated. When you look at what’s on
the Web, you’ll find more than 5 million hits for
‘going to college.’ And for families who don’t
know how to sort through that, it’s really complicated.
“Add to that the fact that low-income families are
reluctant to engage in what we call e-commerce, which is providing
sensitive information of a financial nature online, and the FAFSA
becomes a really important barrier,” Daun-Barnett says.
“If we can’t get through the FAFSA, there is very
little chance many of the families will be able to afford
So “getting them through the FAFSA” is just what
Daun-Barnett and his team does.
When district teachers and administrators saw the 61-percent
increase (as of November 7) in FAFSA applications, they were
excited, according to Daun-Barnett. So the FAFSA Completion Project
decided to do more.
This academic year, the number of city public schools taking
part in the project will increase to 19 or 20. And several charter
schools have accepted the program’s offer of assistance,
Next, those working on the FAFSA project realized they needed
more time with students and parents at the initial stages.
“The FAFSA is really more complicated for low-income
families because many of them do not file taxes for legitimate
reasons: low income, income that is from Social Security or
disability. Because that makes it more complicated, these families
sometimes just don’t see it as being worth doing,”
FAFSA project staff members will continue to attend special
events that attract parents of aspiring college students, such as
district-wide scholarships fairs. They also will start going into
classrooms in January, and for the next three months will sit down
with parents and students in their schools to help them
individually with the forms.
“We also need to help families understand what their
financial award leverage means once they file,” Daun-Barnett
says. “We help them send these forms off, then financial aid
counselors would say the students would come back with all these
award letters and they wouldn’t know how to interpret them.
‘What does it mean?’ ‘How much will college
actually cost me?’”
As expected, the number of people participating in the FAFSA
Completion Project continues to grow. Although Daun-Barnett says he
is still building this year’s team, there will be about 65
student volunteers (mostly GSE students), up from about 40 the
previous year. These volunteers complement the four paid staffers,
including Daun-Barnett; an assistant director and two student
coordinators; and five or six interns from UB who will monitor the
quality of support provided by the schools.
The goal this academic year: approximately 1,200 students who
complete the FAFSA on time.
There also is the bigger picture. The FAFSA Completion Project
team knows it is part of an extended story: Kids who might never
have gone to college are on their way to the kind of life higher
Just ask Mary Ross. One of her toughest, but most successful
cases was a young lady from Burgard who had the opportunity to go
to UB. She had everything necessary to get into the Equal
Opportunity Program, Ross thought, until she got a call from an
administrator who told her the girl’s FASFA was going to have
to go through her father’s Social Security. This
wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that the
girl’s father was a Florida resident and she was trying to
attend a SUNY institution.
“Not only was this a problem,” Ross says, “but
she had not been raised by her father. Her grandmother had legal
custody, but it was a notarized document and not a legal document.
Ross had a week to find a solution.
“Thank goodness for Nate,” Ross says. “He
explained to me that I had to contact the courts and find out what
we needed to do so her grandmother could gain legal custody. I
picked up her grandmother and our senior, and we went downtown and
everything became legal.
“The FAFSA then became an easy task because she had a
legal guardian,” says Ross.
“This wonderful young lady is now a freshman at