Aid system cited as one reason kids skip college

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LEWISTON – A reason more students don’t go to college is the confusing – and stingy – financial aid system that some parents don’t understand, Joan Macri said Wednesday, responding to a five-year report about fewer Maine students going to college.

Macri, a veteran teacher, heads Lewiston High school’s college aspirations program.

Central Maine Community College President Scott Knapp agreed that the financial aid process is too complicated and needs to be made easier. “I’d be delighted if Congress and the Department of Education changed it,” he said.

Meanwhile, educators need to find better ways of explaining complicated things to people, Knapp said. “Maybe the solution is we all need to go into high school gyms and help” students and parents, he said.

According to the Mitchell Institute’s “From High School to College: Removing Barriers for Maine Students” released Wednesday, aspirations to go to college among Maine high school seniors are higher than the number of those going.

In 2001, 64 percent of Maine’s high school seniors said they intended to go to college. The next year 62 percent were there.

In 2005, 70 percent of high school seniors intended to go to college, but a year later only 60 percent were there.

For the Class of 2006, only 57 percent were in college the year after they graduated.

The report shows there are several barriers. Two stand out, said Mitchell Institute Executive Director Colleen Quint. One is that students whose parents have not gone to college are less likely to go themselves. Sometimes their parents don’t raise them with the expectation of going.

Another barrier is an inferior high school preparation. Students who took general and vocational courses were less likely to be in college a year after high school, the report found.

Students on college tracking and parental encouragement are connected, Quint said. “The kids who have known since they were 5 years old that they were going to college” took the tougher courses and were ready. For others, “College is a relatively new thought,” and they’re less prepared.

Ann Danforth, who graduated from Lewiston in June and is going to Vassar College, agreed families have a lot to do with what courses students take. In her Lewiston AP classes were a lot of “Bates kids,” the sons and daughters of Bates College faculty members. Like other schools, her high school has taken multiple steps to boost aspirations, Danforth said.

When the next five-year report comes out, Quint predicts the numbers will improve because of action schools and colleges are taking.

One example is Lewiston High School’s “Early College” program that allows students to take college courses in high school, acquiring both college credit and confidence.

Meanwhile attitudes among students and parents are changing, Quint said.

Lewiston High School’s Macri praised the report, saying it’s important to identify problem areas “as we try to get every kid to college.”

She agreed that parents who don’t push college and high school tracking methods are barriers to college.

Lewiston is working to get rid of tracking and ensure, for instance, that all students learn how to write well and take algebra II, Macri said. And unlike the past, colleges are talking to high schools about what students need, she said.

But Macri identified a third “enormous” barrier: the financial aid process. Too many students and parents don’t understand it, and there’s less financial help, she said.

Macri said her “ah-ha moment” came in 2006 when she surveyed Lewiston’s seniors, asking how many filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms. The forms should be filled out in January.

Out of about 250 seniors, only 28 had filled out the forms, Macri said. “I was stunned. Not everyone knows they should be. They don’t understand they will get no financial aid if they don’t fill it out,” Macri said. “There’s a real knowledge gap.”

This year Lewiston High helped seniors and their parents learn how important filling out the forms are. The numbers of students whose families completed the forms rocketed, Macri said.

The forms are only part of the picture, Macri said.

Once the FAFSA results come back to families telling them how much parents and students should expect to pay for college, some find out their expected family contribution for college is zero.

“Twenty years ago, that meant any college that accepted the student would give them a full ride. But that doesn’t happen anymore,” Macri said. Often the students find out there’s a $6,000 to $12,000 shortfall. Colleges have less money to give out because they’re not well-endowed, and more students are going to college.

Knapp said he agreed with the report’s findings about the critical role of parents in whether their children go to college.

“The best predictor whether someone was going to college was their mother’s opinion on that subject,” Knapp said. “We’ve got to spend time with parents.”

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