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.”