Jhenna Salas wants to turn her disdain for both bullies and the lack of domestic violence shelters around Northern New Mexico into a career. The 34-year-old single mother of three is studying human services at Santa Fe Community College with a goal of becoming a social worker or counselor.
She first enrolled in classes at the college in 2012 before starting again in the spring.
“I got sick and hospitalized and fell behind. I gave up hope and it took me a while to find the energy to start again,” Salas said. “… It’s only because of FAFSA that I am able to come here.”
She was referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which offers access to federal grants and loans to help cover college costs. Students, parents, college counselors and financial aid administrators all agree: Completing the FAFSA is not easy. Many New Mexico high school students avoid the process.
A statewide effort is underway to change that.
In Santa Fe, the effort centers on a collaboration between Santa Fe Community College and Santa Fe Public Schools, which are co-hosting monthly workshops at local high schools. Students can take a college placement test called Accuplacer that’s administered through the national nonprofit College Board, fill out a community college application and receive guidance on completing the FAFSA.
“FAFSA is intimidating,” said Kelly Durbin, director of financial aid at the community college. “But for the large percentage of students who don’t even consider putting college on their radar, getting them to fill out FAFSA, that’s the first step to showing students college is possible.”
What’s at stake, state education officials say, is the feasibility of a proposed full-tuition scholarship program for New Mexico residents attending in-state colleges and universities. The program would rely on more high school seniors and other prospective college students, like Salas, checking all the boxes and signing all the lines on the 10-page form, and providing the required IRS tax documents from both students and parents — and then repeating the process each year they are enrolled in college.
Last month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced her plan for the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, which would cover remaining tuition costs and fees for eligible New Mexico students after all federal aid and the state’s more than 2-decade-old Legislative Lottery Scholarship have been applied. She estimated the scholarship would cost between $25 million and $35 million a year and would benefit about 55,000 students — though, the cost could increase if demand for the aid rose.
The governor’s proposal is aimed at reducing the need for expensive student loans and encouraging more students to enroll in higher education.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 216,400 New Mexico residents now owe $7 billion in student loans — more than $32,000 per borrower.
But the FAFSA requirement for the Opportunity Scholarship — a key strategy to ensure the proposed scholarship fund would be able to meet demand — would have immediately disqualified nearly half of high school graduates in New Mexico’s class of 2019.
In the last school year, 50.5 percent of high school seniors in the state completed the FAFSA, according to Maresa Thompson, an outreach supervisor and creative director with the New Mexico Educational Assistance Fund, which organizes nonprofits in the state to provide FAFSA training and spread awareness about federal student aid.
Following the governor’s scholarship announcement last month, the state Public Education Department said it was launching a new initiative with a goal of raising the FAFSA completion rate to 80 percent.
Thompson’s group is part of that initiative. This year, she said, the New Mexico Educational Assistance Fund is working to increase the rate of high school seniors who apply for federal aid by 10 percent — or about 2,200 students. Since the start of the school year, she said, she has trained about 300 school administrators, teachers, parents and other New Mexicans on how to complete the FAFSA.
“When we look at our state’s stats, about 70 percent of our school population qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch,” a federal measure of poverty, Thompson said. “Using those metrics, we know we have a lot of low-income students who would qualify for Pell Grants but are just not completing FAFSA.”
Eloisa Sanchez, who coordinates a college-readiness program for Santa Fe Public Schools, said about 73 percent of seniors at Capital High, where 100 percent of students are from low-income families, completed the FAFSA, while Santa Fe High, where 51.7 percent of students are low-income, had a completion rate of 57 percent.
Not only is the FAFSA required for students to become eligible for federal loans and Pell Grants — which are now worth up to $6,195 a year, depending on a family’s income and cost of attendance — the form also is the baseline that most colleges, universities and nonprofits use to determine a student’s eligibility for additional financial aid.
Salas, for instance, became eligible through the FAFSA for scholarships from Santa Fe Community College that covered all of her remaining tuition.
Immigrant students without legal residency in the U.S. don’t qualify for federal college aid — a barrier that prevents many students from filling out the complicated form.
Sanchez, however, said part of her work is persuading undocumented students to complete the FAFSA and send it to colleges and universities that offer scholarships to students regardless of their residency status.
“A lot of our undocumented students are afraid to say, ‘I don’t have a Social Security number, but I still want to go to college,’ ” Sanchez said. “… It’s a different process, but there are still money and scholarships out there for them.”
Santa Fe Community College offers a “Dreamers Form” for immigrant students that doesn’t ask for their parents’ names and allows them to apply for financial aid while disclosing as little personal information as possible.
Parents also can be a barrier to completing the FAFSA.
“In many cases, parents don’t understand why they have to share their financial income,” said Durbin, from the community college’s financial aid office. “And so we’re talking to the student, and we’re sending them back to the parent. … It’s this whole one-stop-shop not happening that makes it difficult for the student. They just feel like they are spinning the wheels with all this paperwork without understanding why it’s necessary.”
Meghan McGarrity, interim director of the Santa Fe Higher Education Center, is optimistic about the governor’s proposed full-tuition scholarship program, which she sees as an opportunity for all students in New Mexico to further their education, regardless of family income.
“I think New Mexico is poised to transform the way college is accessed and graduate students without indenturing them to all this debt,” she said. “And that effort starts with more kids filling out the FAFSA.”