Kern County high school students lag behind other Californians when it comes to filling out a form crucial to figuring out how they will pay for college.
FAFSA is short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but the form is also used to check eligibility for state aid, Cal Grants for the University of California and California State University system as well as local scholarships.
Students who don’t fill out this form could be skipping out on college without knowing all of their educational options, according to Kevin Cook, the associate director of The Higher Education Center for The Public Policy Institute of California.
“You’re missing out on a key piece of information: How much will it cost me?” said Cook.
PPIC, which conducts nonpartisan research on California policy, found that school districts with the lowest rates of high school students completing the FAFSA were clustered in Kern County and the Inland Empire, areas of high socioeconomic need.
Federal data released this month estimates that 55 percent to 59 percent of Kern High School District students completed a FAFSA form for the 2021-22 school year — the highest in the county.
Delano Joint Union and Taft Union students were just behind at 50 percent to 54 percent. Tehachapi Unified and Wasco Union High’s estimates are both at 40 percent to 44 percent. The estimated completion rates were the lowest in eastern Kern County: Mojave Unified’s were at 30 percent to 34 percent.
That’s far below many suburban communities, such as Clovis Unified and Irvine Unified at an estimated 70 percent to 74 percent. Some districts were above 80 percent.
Low rates like Kern’s concern Cook. Students who complete FAFSA are more likely to attend college. Undoubtedly, some who fill it out are students who were planning on going already.
But for students worried about paying for college, filling out FAFSA — or the California Dream Act Application for undocumented students — might be just the push they need.
“Particularly in areas where you see low college-going rates, having access to funds gives students more options,” Cook said.
Kern County is one of those places with low college-going rates: 52.2 percent of high school students who graduated in 2018 did not enroll in college, according to California Department of Education data. That puts Kern County in the bottom eight of California’s 58 counties.
Jennifer Achan, director of Financial Aid and Scholarships at Bakersfield College, said that it’s crucial that students receive the message early that college can be affordable and that it’s a sound investment. There are many myths that stop students from even taking their first steps.
Achan sees students lured away from the path of higher education by a $30,000 job. In the short-term, making that amount out of high school seems like a better financial choice than spending time and money out of the job market on education. She encourages students to consider it a long-term investment that will result in a better-paying job.
Some don’t believe they will qualify for aid or they don’t think they have the time to fill out the form. Analytics show that it takes 14 minutes on average for a student to fill out the FAFSA, Achan said. She encourages students by telling them it’s the quickest money they will ever make.
Chad Morris, director of Financial Aid at Cal State Bakersfield, said students worry that because they’re not under the poverty line or they’re working, they won’t qualify. He points to the Middle Class Scholarships as proof there are resources for everyone.
Cook also worries about students already heading to college who may be leaving money on the table by not applying for financial aid. Some students may assume that because they’re attending an inexpensive community college, they might not qualify. But he said getting those funds, not just for tuition but books or other education expenses, can help students stay on track to graduate.
The importance of the FAFSA form has pushed some states to require college seniors to fill it out, and others to consider it. Louisiana, Texas and Illinois already have requirements. California recently passed a requirement for the 2022-23 school year, though it’s unclear what the rollout will look like.
Cook said some districts where fewer students are filling out the form might need more support in the form of college counselors. But some districts in California have made it a priority. Cook points to Val Verde Unified, where 90 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, yet it has one of the highest completion rates in the state.
In the meantime, the financial aid departments of both Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield keep in close contact with local high school counselors and other community partners to remind high school students about the importance of upcoming deadlines.
Students planning to attend college in 2022-23 can apply throughout the academic year, but March 2 is a priority deadline in California for state funding. Local colleges and universities host workshops for both prospective and current students to help them fill out the FAFSA.
Chad Morris, director of Financial Aid at Cal State Bakersfield, encourages students and families to be proactive with their questions.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to schools. People are there to help,” he said.
You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.