When fall rolls around, high school seniors know it is time to start making some of the most important decisions of their lives — where, and if, they are applying to college.
For students who may be the first in their family to go to college in the United States, or at all, the process can appear even more overwhelming. With rising university costs and seemingly endless deadlines and forms, it can be difficult to navigate without proper guidance.
However, college coaches throughout the Chicago area are working to make sure first-generation students have the information they need in order to succeed throughout the admissions process and the financial aid process that follows. Peter Herman, who founded Collegian College Planning 27 years ago, said one of the most important aspects of preparing for college is managing everyone’s expectations, especially when it comes to cost.
In Mexico, the average fee per academic year of university is reported at $5,000, with variation between public ($400-$850) and private institutions ($1,600-$16,000). In the United States, the average amount comes out to over $25,000 per year.
When it comes to looking for scholarships and help with tuition, Herman recommends looking at outside scholarships after applying to a school and seeing what students can get in merit and need-based scholarships. Sometimes he sees students not finishing applications in time because they are too busy focused on outside scholarship applications first, he said.
Abel Montoya, Director of Outreach Operations at Illinois Student Assistance Commission, also regularly works with first-generation students through the college admissions process. He said he recommends applying for college early in the process — September or October —- so students have time to compare and contrast different financial aid options as well as the overall feel of the university.
“Money comes from four major sources — from the federal government, from the state government, from the college itself and then from private sources… each of these sources has its own criteria,” he said.
Students who are citizens will qualify for all of the above areas, with parental citizenship status not affecting anything involving the student. When filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), Herman stressed the importance of making sure all information is double-checked and filled out correctly, and once everything is submitted, do not be afraid to appeal an award if you think you can get or deserve more.
One time, he said, he had a student and her mother appeal for a bigger award at Tulane University due to them not feeling it was accurate to what they needed, and they were able to get additional money.
“Appeal awards,” he said. “I would stress that because schools misaward. I would stress that, every year, appeal to see if there’s more money… there could be [more] scholarships if you apply, find out if there’s one for your major. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
If a student is undocumented, there are still options for receiving financial aid. Montoya said the process could include looking at alternative applications for state grants or institutional money in Illinois, and private scholarship organizations can give money to whomever they choose.
“We encourage students to look locally for scholarships because when you look locally in your community, [they] typically have fewer people apply, so the applicant pool is smaller,” he said.
Marisa Hererra from Solomon Admissions Consulting also said she recommends areas such as the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) and Gates Scholarship, which is geared towards minority students and covers “the full cost of attendance that is not already covered by other financial aid and the expected family contribution as determined by the FAFSA,” as per its website. The Gates Scholarship closed Sept. 15 this year but reopens every year. The 2023 HSF opened New Year’s Day and closed Feb. 15, and awards anywhere from $500-$5,000 based on need.
Aside from financial needs, Herman said one of his biggest recommendations for prospective university students is to get on college campuses and see them for themselves. Whether it is the exact school a student wants to attend or one of similar size in their local community, he said it is important early on to test out the environment.
“By getting on campus, it becomes real, the [college] experience. And [students] get a feel for the type of campus that will fit,” he said.
When it comes time to apply, Herman said eight to 10 schools is what he recommends to students. This way, students have a lot of options to consider if they are looking for a strong financial aid package. If students are still younger — sophomores or juniors — he said they should still be looking into the kind of school they would like to attend, as well as what programs or interests are important to them.
After students have accepted and are on their way to university, Montoya and Hererra both said finding a network of other students like you can be helpful in the transition. Students can find these connections through outside programs or through a university’s own Latino outreach staff.
“Sometimes [students] think, ‘Oh man, do I really belong here?’ And they do. And I remind students if a college admitted [them], it means they feel you can do well, you can succeed at that institution, that you belong there,” Montoya said.
With countless books and websites available to incoming college students, it can be difficult to know where to start looking for helpful information. Here are some basic resources, including those mentioned in the story.
- Financial Aid and Undocumented Students: studentaid.gov/sites/default/files/financial-aid-and-undocumented-students.pdf
- Eight Steps to Completing the FAFSA Form: studentaid.gov/articles/steps-to-complete-fafsa-form
- Hispanic Scholarship Fund: www.hsf.net
- Scholarships for Hispanic Students: www.scholarships.com/financial-aid/college-scholarships/scholarships-by-type/minority-scholarships/hispanic-scholarships
- Gates Scholarship: www.thegatesscholarship.org/scholarship
- ISACorps College Application Mentorship: www.isac.org/students/before-college/isacorps
- ISAC First Generation Scholars: studentportal.isac.org/web/guest/student/?p_p_id=Student_WAR_Studentportlet&_Student_WAR_Studentportlet__facesViewIdRender=/views/isacorpsFirstGenScholarsNetwork.xhtml
La Raza’s editorial coverage is possible in part thanks to a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.