Yes, You Can Afford College

Just ask Kim McDougall

In September 2019, Kim McDougall, a longtime WSU Vancouver staff member in Student Affairs and Enrollment, was hired as the university’s new financial aid outreach coach. By year’s end, she had visited some 2,000 prospective students throughout Southwest Washington, carrying the message that college is affordable.

She also explains how it can be affordable, and, if necessary, helps her audience through the process. Often she teams up with others in WSU Vancouver’s Student Financial Services, Student Affairs and Enrollment, and Admissions offices. They are spreading the word to high schools as well as holding sessions on campus, at two-year colleges and community spaces, such as libraries. They discuss the ins and outs of financial aid—grants, scholarships, work study, loans—and how to get the funding you deserve.

No matter what school you attend, federal and state financial aid programs start with the FAFSA and WASFA forms. (The acronyms stand for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, for U.S. citizens, and the Washington Application for State Financial Aid, for undocumented individuals.) Used to determine a student’s level of need, the documents hold the key to financial aid and college affordability. Financial need is calculated by subtracting expected family contribution (as determined by FAFSA or WASFA) from the cost of attending the chosen school.

After meetings, McDougall sticks around to help people complete their FAFSA and WASFA forms. Although it’s labor-intensive, this one-on-one attention makes a difference for individuals and colleges alike. The first batch of meetings resulted in 115 completed FAFSA forms and handholding to get countless others started, to be completed at home. 

The state of Washington ranks number one for having the largest state college grant program in the United States when comparing student awards. Curiously, however, the state of Washington ranks almost at the bottom—49 out of 50—in the number of FAFSA filers in the state. And Clark County ranks among the lowest in the state of Washington. Moreover, on the Vancouver campus, the number of undergraduates eligible because of income for federal Pell grants is the highest in the WSU system, at 48.5%. (WSU Pullman has the lowest share, at 27.1%.) 

Which means there are a lot of people in Southwest Washington who are missing out on the money that could put them through college. 

“We can’t have that,” McDougall said. 

At the same time, Washington ranks first in the availability of grant funding for college. Beginning in fall 2020, the Washington College Grant (formerly the State Need Grant) guarantees funding to all students who qualify. In prior years, there was not enough grant money for all students who were eligible, and so after funds ran out, approximately one-third of eligible students did not receive their state grant funds. In addition, eligibility has expanded, so that students who previously would have been eligible only for loans are now eligible for the Washington College Grant. Award amounts vary by need.

McDougall is thrilled to be sharing the news. She sees her role as helping to fulfill WSU Vancouver’s land-grant mission. WSU Vancouver was established to give students options in attaining a baccalaureate degree in Southwest Washington—and accessibility means increasing awareness that no matter how high the need, families can afford college.

Why file

“Since September of this year, it’s just taken off,” McDougall said of the requests for financial aid presentations to potential students. Most requests come from high schools, from Castle Rock to Camas in Washington and throughout the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts. 

As a result, the team has expanded their workshop offerings—from the “A – Z
of Paying for College” workshops, which cover a wide range of financial aid, to the more detailed “FAFSA/WASFA Completion” workshops, which focus more on those two forms. They also follow up with one-on-one verification workshops. “Verification is the checks-and-balances system that requires all schools to ‘verify’ that the forms have been filled out correctly,” McDougall said. “If we find an error, we correct it and send it back to update.” They also hold meetings to help people interpret the financial aid award letters they receive.

Typically, McDougall does workshops two or three nights a week, plus daytime visits to classrooms. She’s planning more workshops, reaching down to the junior level in high school. Her position is funded for one year, with an eye to renewal. “If FAFSA filing rates go up and enrollment goes up, we’ll know if this position is successful,” she said. 

Why don’t people file? 

Maybe they don’t trust the government with their information. They have questions and don’t know whom to ask. They feel hopeless. At one workshop, McDougall heard a frequent refrain: When the school counselor asked one student if she’d filed her FAFSA, the girl replied no, her mother had said they wouldn’t get anything anyway, so she hadn’t bothered.

That’s the kind of attitude McDougall is fighting. “More financial aid is available than ever,” she said. “We need to get more students filing their FAFSA.” ■

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