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Minneapolis' 'FAFSA February' helps families perform act of 'bravery'

Tiffany Enriquez
Tiffany Enriquez

Like all of the college and career center coordinators in Minneapolis high schools, Tiffany Enriquez is observing FAFSA February, a month of activities designed to get students to fill out the ever-so-invitingly named Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Big deal, you’re thinking. A whole month organized around a form? Plus, teens don’t fill those things out — parents do, once the fear of hocking an organ to pay for tuition sets in. 

Ah, your middle-class ignorance must be bliss.

The centers Enriquez staffs are located at North High and the alternative PYC Arts & Tech High School, both home to student bodies that are overwhelmingly poor, among other challenges. Before that, she worked at a school where many students had parents who were undocumented.

Enriquez knows about obstacles, but it’s still possible to surprise her. Recently, she was booed out of a classroom where she was trying to talk about financial aid. Her crime: Suggesting that student loans might be an option.

“Those students were horrified by the idea of taking out loans,” she says. “Many of them have had terrible experiences with predatory lenders. Lots have lost their homes, gotten suckered into bad cell phone contracts or into taking out loans they can’t repay.”

Once she learned what the issue was, she realized she could relate. Her own parents’ generation harbored similar fears because many lost farms.

A filled-out FAFSA is a victory [video] both practical and metaphorical. It’s one thing for students to repeat a school’s “college-bound” mantra, Enriquez notes, but it’s another thing to actually take a concrete step toward something many truthfully still assume isn’t a possibility.

FAFSA February as Featured on School Matters from on Vimeo.

The centers were created by AchieveMpls, Minneapolis Public Schools’ nonprofit partner. In the 2010-2011 school year, more than 13,000 MPS students made more than 67,000 visits to the facilities, which are located in all of the district’s stand-alone high schools and in the larger alternative schools.

The effort appears to be working. Since the program’s 2004 launch, the percentage of Minneapolis Public School students enrolling in college within a year after graduation jumped from 48 percent in 2005 to 63 percent in 2011. The percentage of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT test increased from 51 percent in 2005 to 73 percent in 2012.

Students who don’t fill out the form are 70 percent less likely to go to college. For those who do, seeing in black and white that aid is forthcoming often enables a family to brave the next step.

It would be grossly inaccurate to describe them as baby steps. In virtually any household where no one has been to college, it’s intimidating.

For many there’s a language barrier. For others, there’s the hurdle of giving up the cash the student could be bringing home from a job they can get fresh out of school.

Enriquez’ strategy: “I’m hoping right now to get parents surrounded by other parents who have gone through it.” In the workshops she’s held so far, the veterans don’t sugar-coat things, but the uninitiated still seem reassured.

Streamlined though it’s become, the FAFSA still requires tax information. What if your parents aren’t tax filers, perhaps because their income is Social Security Disability? What if they aren’t prepared to file now, when financial aid is being calculated?

(If your parents are undocumented but you aren't, you can still qualify for aid.)

What if you don’t have parents in the picture at all -- or any other adult relative? How does that fear of debt sound now? 

“I have a lot of independent students,” says Enriquez. “How scary is it if it’s just you signing up for this? That’s truly an act of bravery.”

Come to think of it, maybe a month isn’t such a long time. 

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