Applying For Financial Aid Without The Fear Factor

Application deadlines for financial aid like grants, scholarships and student loans are just around the corner. But many students may need help getting their paperwork in order. Host Michel Martin speaks with Adrianna Badillo. She's the director of Gear-Up, a program designed to guide low-income students into higher education.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, to matters of personal finance. If you are considering higher education this fall or one of your children is, now is the time to figure out how to pay for it. One popular way is to try to get financial aid, whether grants or scholarships or student loans.

But what you might not know is the deadlines are coming up as early as March in some states, but a lot of students find the process confusing and intimidating.

Recently, U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat of California, hosted a series of seminars on financial aid for her constituents. One group that participated was called GEAR UP. That's a program to help low income students get into higher education.

To tell us more about that program, we've called upon Adrianna Badillo. She is the director of GEAR UP at California State University at Fullerton.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ADRIANNA BADILLO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Gear Up means...

BADILLO: Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

MARTIN: And that's a national program funded by the Department of Education. Do I have that right?

BADILLO: That's correct.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about the program, if you would.

BADILLO: It's a program to help underserved students to continue their education and to post-secondary institutions. So we help them all the way from junior high or middle school through high school, and making sure that they know the information and what steps they need to take so they can apply, enroll and succeed in a institution of post-secondary education.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you have to assume that a lot of the kids who would - young people, or even perhaps not so young people, who are participating in a program like this are probably first time college attendees. Their parents probably didn't go to college. And you can see where this could be very intimidating. But what are some of the fears, concerns that a lot of the students you work with bring to this process?

BADILLO: I think more than fear is just a lack of knowledge of what steps they need to take. So they don't know where to start. So the goal of GEAR UP is to kind of educate them on that regard and find out what is it that we can help them with and get into that transition and get them started.

MARTIN: But what are some of the things that many of these students and families most need to know? I mean, the deadlines, obviously, is one. But what are the others?

BADILLO: Well, I think one with this population is getting them over that fear that they might not qualify. We are in a very diverse community, even though predominantly most of the students that we work with are Latino. Sometimes, you know, we make the assumptions that we're not going to qualify for that free aid.

You know, a lot of the students that we're serving, a lot of them are homeless, as well, and you don't want their classmates to know that they don't have a mailing address or a home address. So a lot of the things our families are going through, they would have to - you know, if they're in a workshop, they feel they might have to say it out loud.

For example, a lot of things that I've dealing more closely now, when we're helping them with financial aid, is - what if my parents filed for bankruptcy or what if we're losing our home? So a lot of the times, we just want to make sure that they know that, you know, we can help them. We don't have to advertise what their financial situation is. And I think that's a lot of what we try to do in our job.

We work with a lot of students who are immigrant, so maybe their mom or their dad don't have a Social Security. They're not U.S. nationals, so the families don't want to ask anything from the - or maybe they're in process to getting their green card or they're just waiting to get their green card and they don't want to ask for money in fear that they might be removed from the process or that it will go, you know, against them when they go to their meeting for the Homeland Security.

So there's a lot of issues that we deal with, especially with immigrant families or, you know - or low income students that I think you also deal with in general population, but there's other very specific issues that we have to almost comfort them and letting them know that it's OK, we'll work with them. And some of them are on a case-by-case scenario.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Adrianna Badillo. She is the director of GEAR UP at California State University, Fullerton. That's a program to help low income students get into higher education programs. She helps teach kids how to get financial aid.

What is the one form that everybody should fill out? Isn't there a one sort of central form that...

BADILLO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...people - everybody should fill. What is that?

BADILLO: That's the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or also known as FAFSA.

MARTIN: FAFSA. So that's a term you're going to - if you're in this area, you're going to hear the term FAFSA a lot. Tell me a little bit about this.

BADILLO: It's a free form through the federal government where students apply and see what their expected family contribution is, or EFC. And what it is, is they take into account your latest income information for the prior year and then what institutions of higher learning you're applying to and what resources a family has. And then they give you a number - just what is it you might qualify for. No one else is going to give you that free money if you don't invest that, you know, hour or two on the weekend to fill it out. So you're not going to lose anything by applying and finding out whether you do or not qualify for that free money.

MARTIN: And when you use the word, free, now this is another question I think a lot of people have. In recent years, particularly, I think, related to the mortgage crisis, many people have become acquainted with the idea that there are scams out there. Are there obvious red flags that you want to point out?

BADILLO: Yes, some obvious. There are businesses out there that charge for them to fill out the free application. So we always caution parents and students to be wary of those firms or those companies or those individuals that are charging to do a free process. So making sure that they go to the right website. You know, FAFSA, F-A-F-S-A, dot E-D, dot G-O-V. So making sure that...

MARTIN: So this...

BADILLO: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: So the dot-gov is a sign. The dot-gov means it's something that's run by the government and not by a private corporation and that should be free. And you're saying, if somebody's wanting to charge you money to fill out a form, watch out.

BADILLO: Watch out. Or watch out for someone that might send you a letter home telling you, if you come to this seminar - this weekend seminar - if you pay - you know, you pay us $100, we guarantee you financial aid. They shouldn't guarantee the...

MARTIN: You're saying that there's no guarantee? There's no magic bullet.

BADILLO: There's no guarantee.

MARTIN: There's no magic wand.

BADILLO: No. There's no magic wand. In the terms of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the federal government has its own formulas that they take into consideration. No one has those formulas. Only them. So the family has to apply and find out what they're expected to contribute for the student's higher education expenses.

MARTIN: OK. So one piece of advice that you wish you had had before you started this process. I know you're an expert now, but back when you were new at this, is there something you really wish somebody had told you?

BADILLO: Don't be intimidated and there's always a lot of people willing to help. You've just got to look out for the help. You know, your high school counselor are your best bet. For example, in my case, I didn't go enough to my high school counselor and, sometimes, you know, they're really busy with a lot of students, but making sure that they go out and ask for help is the key factor here because it is an intimidating process, so. But there's also just as many people trying to help them out, so asking for that help is the first step.

MARTIN: Adrianna Badillo is director of GEAR UP at California State University, Fullerton. She was kind enough to join us from Costa Mesa, California.

Adrianna, thank you so much for joining us.

BADILLO: Oh, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, working moms have all kinds of challenges. They juggle the tensions and trials of a workday with band practice, baseball games, having dinner on the table and homework. And a new study points out that there's another challenge on that list. Mothers tend to earn less than other working women, especially in certain fields. We'll get some thoughts on that from our panel of moms. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: If you watch certain news shows, you might think the only missing people in this country are attractive blonde women and girls, but that's not true. The new series, "Find Our Missing," hopes to shed light on hundreds of people of color who go missing every year in the U.S. We speak with host S. Epatha Merkerson about the program and we find out how the series is already drawing new information on cold cases. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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