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FAFSA project clears the way for students’ financial aid

Nathan Daun-Barnett with students at Bennett High School

Nathan Daun-Barnett, second from left, with students at Bennett High School. Pictured with Daun-Barnett are, from left, UB graduate student Caitlin Kubala, Bennett student Kelvin Sika, UB graduate student Khristian King and Bennett student Lamont Owens. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published November 14, 2013

“If we can’t get through the FAFSA, there is very little chance many of the families will be able to afford college.”
Nathan Daun-Barnett, director
FAFSA Completion Project

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 UB’s FAFSA Completion Project and its director, Nathan J. Daun-Barnett. Daun-Barnett is the Graduate School of Education faculty member whose mission is to significantly raise the numbers 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.

“His 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 whomever assistance. I believe they were at times very surprised on how many different hurdles we encountered.”

The guy riding that white horse has more of an academic’s methodical and logical problem-solving demeanor than Ross’ classroom passion. 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 work.

The FAFSA project, which started 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 Education” initiative.

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 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. Cost will affect where they decide to go, but they will go somewhere.

“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 college.”

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 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, Daun-Barnett says.   

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,” Daun-Barnett says.

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 Graduate School of Education 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 education builds.

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 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 UB.”