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Los Angeles Unified Makes Big Strides Toward 100% College Financial Aid Apps

A woman with long dark brown hair, wearing a face mask and teal and white sweatshirt, leans over a young man in a puffy black jacket and face mask who's sitting in a cushy armchair with a laptop resting on his thighs.
College counselor Bo Mee Kim helps a student apply for financial aid at Gardena Senior High School.
(Jill Replogle
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Starting next school year, the state of California expects every high school senior to apply for financial aid for college. Despite lingering effects of the pandemic, Los Angeles Unified School District has made big strides toward meeting the new financial aid mandate.

More than three-quarters of all Class of 2022 seniors at LAUSD high schools have submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or California Dream Act Application, according to data from the California Student Aid Commission. That's a 15% increase over last year, and higher than the share of seniors who applied for financial aid before the pandemic hit.

Higher education advocates say applying for financial aid ensures that students are aware of the grants and scholarships available to help pay for college.

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Marlene Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, called LAUSD's increase "dramatic for a district as large and complex as L.A."

"So real kudos to them for the efforts that they've made," Garcia said.

LAUSD leaders say some of their efforts included:

  • Providing weekly data to schools and local districts from the student aid commission. The data allowed counselors and educators to see which students had submitted and completed their applications and follow up with those who hadn't. 
  • Extending the hours of "application labs" where students and parents could get help filling out college and financial aid applications. 
  • Distributing FAST (Financial Aid Success Toolkit) guides so that staff members could access basic information about the application process to answer student questions and direct them to resources. The toolkits also included sample social media and robocall messages that schools could use to keep students on track with their applications. 
  • At some schools, requiring students to submit a financial aid application in order to participate in senior activities such as prom.  
  • District-wide social media countdown to the March 2 priority financial aid deadline.

Carol Alexander, LAUSD's director of A-G intervention and support, noted that community partners and the state Cash for College workshops provided key support. "This is what I would call an all-hands-on-deck opportunity," she said.

Alexander also said having students back in person made advising them and their families much easier. "It was a much longer process when it was online," she said.

Nancy Soto, a College Empowerment School Social Worker at Panorama High School, said that in the past, students could get a pass on submitting financial aid applications if they said they were planning to go into the military or they were moving out of state.

"This year we tried something different," Soto said. "We said, 'Look, things change and on the day that you sit down for your graduation, we want to make sure that you have more options and not less — otherwise we're not doing our job with you.'"

Soto said 100% of Panorama seniors this year applied for college and financial aid.

Other SoCal Districts Also Improved

Overall, California schools saw an average 7% increase in financial aid applications this year, though applications are still down compared to 2020.

How To Get To College In California
  • Higher education promises a lot of things: jobs, better pay, fantastic opportunities, lifelong success. But trying to make it all happen is, uh, not so straightforward. LAist can't make decisions for you, but our guide to navigating college in California can sketch out the landscape — tell you the basics of what’s out there, highlight helpful resources, discuss pros and cons of different options, get honest about financial aid, and point you to real humans who can talk you through it.

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Other local districts that saw big increases in financial aid applications compared to last year include Santa Ana Unified, which saw applications rise 14.5%, equal to the district's 2020 level, and Oxnard Unified, up 10.4%, though still down from 2020.

"Schools are really doing a great job in making this a priority," Garcia from the student aid commission said.

LAUSD leaders say later this month they intend to present to the Board of Education a plan for getting to 100% financial aid completion. The board requested the plan in a resolution last fall, with an April deadline.

Alexander said their efforts are still hampered by the lack of academic counselors and fear among undocumented families of sharing sensitive information with the government, among other factors.

Micaela Vazquez-Hahn, LAUSD's college readiness coordinator, said she wants students to learn about their higher education options, including factors such as financial aid, well before senior year.

"Telling somebody to apply for financial aid without the context of what your post-secondary plan might be and what your career options are and what actual degree, whether it's a certificate program, or a master's or doctorate,” she said, “those are all conversations that have so many nuances that we really have to build that picture from middle school forward."

Have a question about access to higher education?
Jill Replogle covers the pathways to higher education and the obstacles students face along the way.