College & Workforce Readiness

Navigating Financial Assistance Can Be Tough. Not All Schools Offer Help

By Elizabeth Heubeck — January 05, 2024 5 min read
Illustration of female student, carrying books and papers, jumping over hurdles to get to the money on a hook.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The majority of high school students eye college admission as the goal after graduation. Nearly 62 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in college shortly after graduation, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And school systems invest heavily to prepare students academically for this next step.

But the same cannot necessarily be said for another vital piece of the college-going process: navigating how to pay for it.

A lack of internal resources, knowledge, and bandwidth often prevent school systems from providing this support. The consequences can be as—or more—damaging to students than an unimpressive grade point average or a blown SAT.

“Financial aid is really complex,” said Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “It’s definitely a complicated web.”

Students’ perceptions of affordability matter

Even before students attempt to identify and access the multiple sources of financial assistance available for college (distributed by federal and state governments, private scholarships, and colleges themselves), their perceptions about its affordability can impact whether they end up going.

An analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics of more than 23,000 students bore this out.

Researchers asked high school juniors whether they agreed with the statement: “Even if you get accepted to college, your family cannot afford to send you.” Thirty two percent agreed or strongly agreed. In a follow-up survey three years after these respondents graduated from high school, 59 percent of the those who initially agreed that their families couldn’t afford college were not enrolled in college. Among respondents who as juniors in high school believed that their families could afford college, 80 percent did attend.

Barriers to effective support from school counselors

So high school students’ perceptions about college affordability predict, to some extent, their pursuit of higher education, even though they may not match reality. But without sound education on financial assistance options, students’ perceptions are unlikely to change.

Schools seem to be an obvious source for educating students on financial assistance options, but it doesn’t always happen.

School counselors, facing large student caseloads and multiple responsibilities, often lack the bandwidth. During the 2021-22 academic year, for instance, public high school counselors oversaw 405 students, on average; that’s well over the 250-to-1 maximum ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. Some states’ counselor caseloads are even higher: Indiana’s student-to-counselor ratio is 694 to 1, Arizona’s is 651 to 1, and Michigan’s is 615 to 1, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Public school counselors spend 22 percent of their time on postsecondary admission counseling, compared to 51 percent for private school counselors, according to the NACAC.

However counseling students about higher education, especially individually, has been shown to make a difference in college attendance. High school seniors who talked one-on-one with a school counselor were nearly seven times more likely to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), more than three times more likely to attend college, and two times more likely to attend a bachelor’s degree program, according to a NACAC study.

Counseling students on the possibility of college is part of the process; so too is navigating the actual tools that can get them there, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Students whose families present a more complicated financial background require closer attention, explains CJ Powell, director of advocacy at NACAC. Those include families who receive public financial assistance and those of mixed immigration status, he explained. “These are the students to target for support,” he said.

Powell also suggested that these students, who are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college, benefit from field trips to nearby colleges, which can make their college prospects seem more real.

Leaning on outside resources

For high schools where counseling departments are stretched thin or lack the breadth of knowledge required to provide comprehensive college financial assistance support, there are outside options.

Desjean, of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, advises high school guidance offices to develop relationships with local colleges. Financial aid administrators at higher education institutions can and often do facilitate informational events at high schools that cover various aspects of college financial assistance, she explains. Inviting a professional to present at such an event “isn’t a tremendous lift,” Desjean said. “Financial aid administrators at colleges do this on their own time, as volunteers.”

For support with the nitty-gritty aspects of filling out the FAFSA, Powell recommends a relatively new AI-driven tool, Wyatt, free to high school students. This “digital FAFSA advisor” was launched in 2019 by the Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit advocating for public assistance. College applicants completing the FAFSA, a requirement for any college-bound student looking to receive federal assistance, can use Wyatt to receive answers to specific questions about the FAFSA, and get reminders of submission deadlines, via text.

Some support systems offer both big-picture as well as detailed support. Such is the case with College Access Fairfax, a nonprofit that provides support for students and families on how to finance post-secondary education and is among nearly 600 member organizations of the National College Attainment Network, an advocacy organization that seeks to increase postsecondary access degree attainment.

College Access Fairfax provides several group informational events and webinars about financing college for high school students throughout the Fairfax County school system. It also hosts FAFSA completion clinics. “I actually pull the FAFSA out and go over it line by line with families,” said Tessie Wilson, the chairwoman of the nonprofit.

College Access Fairfax assists between 750 and 1,000 college-bound students annually, estimates Wilson. The nonprofit supports this volume of students with only a handful of part-time employees, whose backgrounds range from tax consultants to teachers.

“They all have a desire to help kids,” Wilson said. “I can teach you how to fill out a FAFSA. But I can’t teach you how to have empathy for that first person in their family going to college.”


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Amid a Rocky FAFSA Rollout, Ed. Dept. Offers Colleges More Flexibility
The changes are meant to free up colleges and universities to process aid forms more quickly and easily.
4 min read
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the rise.
Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form are on the rise.
Jon Elswick/AP
College & Workforce Readiness A Career Prep Bill Gets Bipartisan Support in the Senate. What’s in It?
New federal legislation would authorize state grants to bolster dual enrollment, apprenticeships, and other forms of on-the-job training.
4 min read
Heidi Griebel and Josie Wahl participate in carpentry class at Career and Technical Education Academy in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Jan. 7, 2019.
Heidi Griebel and Josie Wahl participate in carpentry class at the Career and Technical Education Academy in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Jan. 7, 2019. A new bill in the U.S. Senate would authorize state grants to bolster dual enrollment, apprenticeships, and other forms of on-the-job training.
Loren Townsley/The Argus Leader via AP
College & Workforce Readiness In Wake of Hiccups and Tight Deadlines, Feds Beef Up Supports for Fledgling FAFSA
The newly designed Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, branded the "Better FAFSA," is prompting lots of frustration.
3 min read
In this May 5, 2018 file photo, graduates at the University of Toledo commencement ceremony in Toledo, Ohio. On the bumpy road to repayment this fall, student loan borrowers have some qualms. Borrowers filed more than 101,000 student loan complaints with the Federal Student Aid office in 2022 – more than double from 2021 – and that number is poised to increase further as October payments approach.
High school seniors who are hoping to one day graduate from college are facing significant roadblocks in getting answers to how much federal student aid they can get from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which has been plagued by delays and technical glitches. Above, students at the University of Toledo in Ohio participate in graduation ceremonies on May 5, 2018.
Carlos Osorio/AP
College & Workforce Readiness The New Digital SAT: 4 Important Details Educators Need to Know
The digital SAT college admissions exam launches in the United States this spring.
6 min read
Tight crop of a student's hands using a keyboard on table to do test examination with multiple choice bubble form on virtual screen.