Santa Rosa Junior College recently overhauled its financial aid website, complete with the new Financial Aid Television (FATV) video library and Rosco the chatbot. From checklists to application preparation to information for veterans and undocumented students, the new website more accessible and simplifies the application process for students.
However, Constance Tanner, a SRJC student employee in the financial aid office, revealed that not many students take advantage of the resources offered.. “Only 27 percent of students are receiving financial aid, but 84 percent are actually eligible,” Tanner said.
According to Tanner, many of students’ perceived barriers to financial aid revolve around a lack of awareness of resources, and because students who must list their parents’ income on their FAFSA assume they won’t qualify for aid.
Financial aid comes in many forms, and Student Financial Services (SFS) helps students not only fill out the FAFSA but decipher the aid they qualify for.
Financial aid comes in three main forms: grants, scholarships and loans.
Grants and scholarships can be cash or non-cash awards that do not require repayment and are directly applied to tuition or other expenses, such as books or parking passes. Some grants are stackable, meaning receiving one doesn’t prevent a student from accepting others.
For example the California Promise Grant (formerly known as the BOG fee waiver), waives a student’s tuition cost. Any additional aid received could then be used towards other school related expenses: books, parking passes and resources such as laptops, transportation and even housing.
Federal Stafford Loans, while still a form of debt, offer low interest rates, a variety of repayment options and can be used towards students’ living expenses.
Gregory Granderson, loan specialist with SFS, explained there are special conditions that may enable students to receive federal loans even when their FAFSA tax information might normally disqualify them.
Loss of income, a death in the family, a new marriage and divorce or separation are some examples of factors that can qualify a student for federal loans when current life circumstances aren’t reflected in the tax year required for the FAFSA application.
The FAFSA is where almost all students start.
Rose Garcia, a financial aid technician, calls the FAFSA a six-in-one application. With this one application, students can apply for federal grants, federal loans and four different forms of state grants in California: the aforementioned Promise Grant and Cal Grants A, B, and C.
The Student Aid Commission reviews FAFSA results and contacts students if they qualify for one of the California grants. Cal Grant A is geared towards four-year colleges and universities and can be used for recent high school graduates or transferring students. Transferring students can place their Cal Grant A on reserve for up to two years, so taking a break between community college and resuming their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree doesn’t cost them their aid. Cal Grants B and C are designated specifically for two-year colleges.
California also offers Full Time Student Success Grants (FTSSG) and Community College Completion Grants (CCCG) for students maintaining full-time enrollment and nearing completion of a degree or certificate on track with their education plan.
SRJC offers more than 700 local scholarships for continuing and transfer students, according to Noeme Leahy, who works with the scholarship department of SFS.
One application for the Foundation scholarship automatically enters the student for evaluation of all SRJC scholarships they qualify for. Some scholarships are need-based while others are merit-based. Having the FAFSA on file increases a student’s chances of receiving aid as opposed to those who do not complete the FAFSA application even if they do not qualify for federal aid.
The Doyle scholarship is available to high school graduates who complete a current FAFSA within the period it’s open.. Other local outside scholarships are often listed on the financial aid website as well, and sidebar links offer national and international outside scholarships.
To explore scholarship options, students can log into their Portal and click on “Scholarship Opportunities” in the Quick Links box. Outside scholarships currently available are also listed there, as well as several scholarship search sites independent of SRJC.
Geoff Navarro, a guidance counselor at SRJC, emphasized the importance of keeping an updated education plan, because summer and fall financial aid could be impacted by an outdated plan.
Jessica Longoria, another SRJC counselor, agreed with Navaro and said students can drop in the counseling office to ask how their schedule choices can impact their financial aid eligibility. Counselors can also help craft student education plans to comply with federal student aid guidelines, so asking questions is encouraged.
For students overwhelmed with options, confused by details, or just scared of the process, several outside organizations offer face-to-face, one-on-one assistance.
Other help on SRJC campuses
Rafael Vazquez works in the EOPS office on the 3rd floor of the Bertolini Student Center and also works with undocumented students seeking financial aid via the California Dream Act. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students are not the only ones helped by places like the Dream Center in Plover Hall off Elliot Avenue.
Vazquez said many undocumented would-be students not currently qualifying for AB540 can become AB540 eligible by taking non-credit ESL or GED classes, and financial aid is available to facilitate that process.
The EOPS office has several programs that help single parents, low-income, former foster care, and first generation college students Support from EOPS ranges from covering childcare costs through CalWorks or funding for books and food from the Fresh n Natural cafes on both campuses. First generation college students with less than 70 total units may qualify for some EOPS services even when they don’t elsewhere.
Students with needs that go beyond educational expenses and put them at risk of dropping out of classes can also apply for a Basic Needs Grant with a letter of explanation and a letter of recommendation from a faculty member.
According to Farrel Dobbins, SRJC’s coordinator of Veterans Affairs, misunderstanding their options also prevents veterans from applying for financial aid.
“A lot of times, actually, there’s a misconception that you can’t use financial aid and VA education benefits at the same time but you can,” Dobbins said.
Dobbins said VA benefits may cover tuition and books while excluding other expenses such as rent. However, if veterans qualify through the FAFSA for a Pell Grant or Stafford Loan, those funds can be used for living expenses like housing, transportation, or even food — filling the VA benefits’ shortfall.
A number of organizations operating on campus offer assistance for students that aren’t FAFSA dependent.
Voices hosts drop-in centers for youth ages 16-24 in Sonoma and Napa counties and provides help with the FAFSA, job seeking, housing and other supports. Margaret Mann of SFS works with Voices’ Education Navigator Kelsey Bjugstad to help students connect to an education path tailored to their needs.
Operating in Marin and Sonoma counties with some ties in Napa and San Francisco, 10,000 Degrees is a nonprofit organization that takes high school students “to and through college.” Most of the staff were first generation college students themselves and are available Mondays and Thursdays in Mi Casa on the Santa Rosa campus and in the Intercultural Center on the Petaluma campus from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The money is there, and life could become a little easier if you take the time to find out how much could be yours.