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Helping California Students Access College Financial Aid

August 09, 2019

FASA_appAs underserved communities continue to struggle, philanthropy is stepping up to ensure that nonprofits serving those communities are able to apply for and receive the support they so desperately need.

The Spark Grant program, a new initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, aims to disrupt the slow and often opaque traditional foundation grant application process. The program gives organizations aligned with Michelson's mission a quick and easy way to apply for grants of up to $25,000. Unlike with a traditional grant, applicants to the Spark Grant program receive a decision on their proposals in just fifteen business days. The rapid turnaround makes Spark Grants particularly well suited to project-based initiatives designed to increase the number of underserved learners enrolled in postsecondary opportunities or help students earn a college or vocational credential that positions them for a well-paying job.

College Affordability

Michelson 20MM is passionate about making higher education more affordable for more people, particularly in this moment, when postsecondary education has never been more critical — or more expensive.

According to Sarah Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia, the rising cost of higher education puts college out of reach for many, if not most, students without some form of financial aid.

"The real price of attending college is higher than what colleges care to admit," says Goldrick-Rab. "The solution is making public colleges and universities accessible to everyone, like we do for high school, and operating under the assumption that everyone needs financial help."

In order to secure the financial aid they need, however, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — the tool used by the federal government to determine financial aid eligibility. Unfortunately, many students have never heard of FAFSA or, if they have, are not successful in filling it out, which often results in them receiving either no aid or far less than they should. (It's also common for students who received aid for their first year of school not to re-apply through FAFSA in subsequent years.)

Enter Education Trust-West

Education Trust˗West is one of the first recipients of a Michelson 20MM Spark Grant. Founded in 2001 to address educational disparities experienced by low-income students and students of color in California, the organization works to ensure that students from underserved populations have access to a high-quality education while closing the opportunity gap between those students and their white middle-class peers.

"In the past two years in California, nearly a half million high school seniors didn't complete a financial aid application," says Tyler Wu, a higher education policy analyst at the organization.

The issue was elevated a year ago with the passage of California Assembly Bill 2015, which goes into effect in time for the 2020-21 school year. AB-2015 requires that every high school in California provide information to students about financial aid applications at least once before they enter twelfth grade — a step that has proved to increase financial aid completion rates. With the passage of AB-2105, says Wu, there is an urgent need for tools and resources that ensure the implementation of the law in ways that maximize educational equity for low-income students and students of color.

Education Trust˗West will use its $25,000 Spark Grant to fund the development of a California Digital Financial Aid Awareness Toolkit — a set of resources designed to improve awareness and understanding of FAFSA among high school and district administrators, counselors, and teachers and ensure that low-income students and students of color fill out the application successfully.

"Our goal is to get these resources in the hands of more educators around the state," says Wu, adding that the project will enable Education Trust˗West staff to meet with local and community educators and walk them through the toolkit, with the goal of boosting application rates statewide and putting more low-income students and students of color in a position to apply for the financial aid they need to go to college or vocational school.

The second round of the Spark Grant program opened for applications on August 5. Do you have an innovative education project that could benefit from an expedited grant? We’d love to hear from you.

Headshot_mayra_lombera_PhilanTopicMayra Lombera is director of strategic initiatives at the Michelson 20MM Foundation.

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