By Alex Medina

Carmen Macías never had a chance to apply for government aid for college. As an undocumented resident of East Los Angeles when she graduated from Garfield High School in 2007, she was ineligible for federal aid. It wasn’t until the 2011 enactment of the California Dream Act that the state began offering financial help to students who came to the United States as undocumented children.

Macías, 26, worked full time after graduating from high school, lived at home while in community college and then transferred to US Santa Cruz in 2010. “By that time, I had a clear understanding of what my immigration status meant in terms of financial aid, so I definitely was looking for scholarships, sponsors, anything that I could get,” said Macías.

Attending college without financial aid impacted her career path.

Carmen Macías is a college advisor assigned to Esteban Torres high school in East Los Angeles. Photo by Alex Medina

“It definitely influenced my desire to work with students that are low-income, first generation [immigrants],” said Macías, a graduate student at USC who works as a college advisor at Esteban E. Torres High School in East Los Angeles as part of the Southern California College Advising Corps. “It definitely encouraged me to continue working with my community, students that might have a similar experience as me.”

A fluent Spanish speaker, Macías spends half her time helping students and their parents with financial aid information and walking them through the process. Financial aid plays an important role in paying for college, especially in communities such as Boyle Heights where many families are low income.

For the majority of high school seniors nationwide, the process of applying for college includes filling out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), an essential tool for obtaining financial aid. The FAFSA is used to determine the amount of money a family is expected to contribute to the cost of attending college.

Many students and parents do not even know there is federal and state aid for college, nor how to apply. When asked about the federal application, Gibson Hernández, a Bravo High School ninth grader, replied: “I’ve never even heard about the FAFSA before.”

The FAFSA includes questions about a family’s income, debt, savings and assets, much of which can be found on tax forms. Macías says it initially takes a lot of explanation to students and parents about the information that needs to be gathered, but the application form itself takes an average of about one hour to complete and submit.

There are many misconceptions among students and families about the application process and eligibility. According to the U.S. government, every year thousands of students miss the deadline or simply forego applying, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars. Because of this, the Obama Administration this year announced changes meant to streamline the FAFSA process.

A bulletin board shows various college application deadlines. It is managed by Carmen Macías, a college advisor assigned to Esteban Torres high school in East Los Angeles. Photo by Alex Medina

Currently, the FAFSA cannot be filed until January 1 of a student’s senior year in high school. With the changes, students applying during the 2017-18 school year and beyond can submit a FAFSA application as early as October 2016. Because of the earlier opening of the filing period, students will be able to submit earlier tax information instead of waiting for their parents to receive their W2 forms and file their tax returns in the year in which aid is being sought.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the earlier application dates will align the financial aid process with the college application timeline. With a June deadline, students will have more time to fill out the FAFSA application.

Macías said that an earlier application will benefit those students who will wait for an aid award letter before deciding what college to go to, but she also fears that students could feel overwhelmed.

“Everything’s going to happen in October and November,” she said. “I think in order for it to work more smoothly, we need to start increasing awareness with our 10th and 11th graders, so that by their senior year, they already have some sort of understanding.”

Many students know very little or have never heard about financial aid.

Angel Núñez, a 12th grader at Bravo High School, said he’s heard people saying they may not qualify for financial aid because they believe their family income falls into a high or above average range.

“I see this as discouraging, because it causes students to believe that they are not eligible for financial aid,” he said. “The reality, however, is that eligibility isn’t determined until the student completes the application, and there really is no harm in applying for financial aid.”

Students often don’t even apply for private schools, as they sometimes see them as too expensive. The truth is that some private colleges offer such generous aid that attending them can cost less than attending a UC or a California state university. To apply for and receive aid from private colleges, a student might also need to fill out an additional form –the CSS PROFILE, which is located on the College Board website.

Also, many students believe erroneously that they cannot receive federal aid if they have undocumented parents. As long as a student was born in the United States, he can apply.

With the passing of the California Dream Act, even undocumented students can get some financial aid from the state, though not from the federal government. Macías recently helped a high-achieving undocumented student from Torres get a full ride to UC San Diego.  Macías helped her apply for grants and scholarships and also counseled her parents, who worried about their daughter attending a school so close to the Mexican border.

“There’s a lot of resources now for undocumented and citizens,” she says. “There’s no excuse for anyone to say, ‘I’m not going to go.”

What You Should Know about FAFSA

  • Required by most colleges
  • Available online only at www.fafsa.ed.gov
  • Best to fill out online, not on paper
  • Free to file
  • The earlier you submit it, the more likely you are to receive aid
  • Based on need, not academics
  • Some colleges also use to determine need-based private scholarships
  • June 30, 2016 is the last day for the class of 2016 to submit

Photo above: Carmen Macías advises students at Torres High School in East Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Carmen Macías.

Alex Medina

Alex Medina is a graduate of Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School and 2018 alumnus of the Boyle Heights Beat. He is a recent graduate of Hamilton College in Central New York where he majored in Hispanic...

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