February 07, 2018

Scholarship and grant opportunities help remedy $2.3 billion in unclaimed federal financial aid

A sign on Salt Lake Community College's Redwood Campus touts the Promise Program.  Photo by Michael Evans|||| A sign on Salt Lake Community College's Redwood Campus touts the Promise Program. Photo by Michael Evans|||| ||||

by Marilyn Shelton

According to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Department of Education, only 34 percent of high school students in Utah fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA forms, making Utah second last in the nation for FAFSA completion.

Completing the FAFSA is the first step toward getting financial aid for college, says a statement by the Department of Education. Completing the FAFSA can help you to qualify for other scholarships and grants. A NerdWallet financial analysis report showed that nationally $2.3 billion in free federal grant money was left unclaimed during the 2016-2017 school year.

“We have a lot of students who don’t realize it’s there so they use their credit card and it’s like ‘no, don’t use your credit card,’” said Cristi Easton, Financial Aid Director at Salt Lake City Community College. She said that her department is doing something to remedy the problem of unclaimed money.

“This year we worked with the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, UHEAA, who does FAFSA nights for high schools all over the state, and we had the biggest increase in FAFSA completion for the 2017-2018 school year than any school in the United States,” she said.

“I think they did 72 FAFSA nights last year and this year we did at least that many, ” Easton said, adding that members of the SLCC Office of Financial Aid go to local high schools to assist students with their FAFSA applications and introduce other options for funding.

The Promise Grant

One such option for students at SLCC is The Promise Grant, which is open to Utah residents only and is for those students who are eligible for a Pell Grant but still need additional funds for what the Pell Grant won’t cover, Easton said. “It came about after President Obama’s discussion about free community college.”

The Promise Grant is entirely needs-based and income-dependent. To qualify for Promise, students must first be receiving a Pell Grant, be a full-time student taking over 12 credit hours, maintain a 2.0 GPA, and have attempted less than 90 credit hours in the past. An average of 700 students received $800,000 from the Promise Grant last year, with the average award per student being around $1,100, according to the SLCC Office of Financial Aid.

PACE Scholarship

Another option for covering the cost of college at SLCC is the Partnerships for Accessing College Education or PACE Scholarship, which offers full-tuition assistance to students for up to a two-year associate’s degree. PACE, founded in 2011, started as a partnership between SLCC and Zions Bank, said Monica Gomez-Rogerson, PACE Scholarship Coordinator at the college.

PACE is funded completely by businesses and private donors. Students are accepted into PACE in the 9th grade and asked to meet certain requirements in order to receive the scholarship at the end of those four years. There are four participating high schools in the PACE Scholarship program, including West, East, Highland, and Cottonwood high schools, said Gomez-Rogerson.

PACE Scholarship eligibility requirements include being a first-generation college student, maintaining a 2.5 GPA, having 90 percent attendance, taking enrichment math classes and having taken a concurrent enrollment or Advanced Placement class.

“If they meet all those requirements and they graduate with a high school diploma, they receive their scholarships, their two-year tuition and student fees scholarships,” Gomez-Rogerson said, adding that 68 percent of students from the four area participating high schools go on to SLCC and that around $257,000 is awarded to PACE students annually.

The PACE Scholarship seeks to serve students who not only have low incomes but who are also first-generation college students.

After acceptance into SLCC, she said that PACE students are put into a small cohort yet again. “The advantage for them is that they’re in a smaller group of students. All SLCC students have access to advisers, but these guys have special advisers that work specifically with these students.”

SLCC student Jasmin Topete, a freshman studying social work, is a recipient of the PACE Scholarship.

“I don’t have to worry about what if that happens or what if this happens… It’s awesome to focus on my education, to focus on my career and to not have to worry.”

She said that making it through the PACE program in high school was not easy. “It’s a lot of advanced classes and intense work, so it was difficult. There were times when I didn’t want to do it, but my adviser definitely helped me a lot. She was always there,” Topete said.

Topete said that she chose to major in social work after working at the YWCA. “Seeing what the kids went through, it really motivated me to want to do something.”  She also said that her parents are especially proud of her as she is a first-generation college student.

“The PACE scholarship makes my dream of going to college a reality,” said Topete.

USU Freshmen Resident Merit Scholarship

Another scholarship to utilize the $2.3 billion national in financial aid money that went unclaimed last year is Utah State University’s Freshman Resident Merit Scholarship. USU Admissions Representative Naomi Jimenez, said that prospective USU students are given an index score which is based on a combination of their GPA, ACT, and SAT scores and that the index chart is available on the school’s website. Students can look up their index scores to see which scholarship they qualify for based on their scores and then apply.

Students need an index score of 122-125 for the Merit Scholarship, which is available only to Utah residents. It covers 45 percent of the resident tuition rate for that year.

USU junior Shanelle Horman said she looked up her index score on USU’s website and received a Freshmen Resident Merit Scholarship in the fall of 2014. “My ACT score was 26 and my GPA was 3.96. I got a $2,200 one-time scholarship,” Horman said.

Horman said that she “fell in love” with the education courses she took in high school and that she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She said she plans to graduate from USU in May of 2018 with a degree in elementary education.

Our CASA Lounges

There may be other resources for students who want to get assistance filling out the FAFSA, or who are looking for scholarships or college access programs. Several schools in the Salt Lake City School District have spaces called Our CASA lounges. “Our CASA (Communities Aspiring, Succeeding, and Achieving) lounges are community rooms where parents and students can access resources to advance their education,” said Paul Kuttner, Education Pathways Partnership Manager at University Neighborhood Partners through the University of Utah, one of the sponsors of Our CASA.

Other sponsors of Our CASA lounges include the Salt Lake City School District, Google Fiber, A Capital City Education, and AT&T. Kuttner said a student from West High School came up with the name “Our CASA” and that the students liked that the name bridged two languages and that the lounges could feel like home.

At the Our CASA lounges, students, parents, and members of the community have access to computers, AmeriCorps mentors, workshops, adult education classes, and other events.

Our CASA lounges opened early this year at Backman Elementary School, West High School, the Glendale Mountain View Community Learning Center, and the Salt Lake Center for Science Education. Kuttner said the plan for them is still developing and that each Our CASA space varies from site to site.

“So it’s not going to be the same at an elementary school vs. a middle school, because they need different things. Each school develops its own space.West High School’s space is mostly used for college access programs and at Backman Elementary, the space is mostly used for family engagement activities, like parent meetings,“ Kuttner said.

There are plans to open up Our CASA lounges at Northwest Middle School and at the UNP Hartland Partnership Center later this month.