Column: We need to streamline the way students find financial help


I graduated debt free from Virginia Commonwealth University – twice. I won more than $40,000 in scholarships and $25,000 in grants toward my undergraduate and post-baccalaureate degrees. I’m not the average case.

 Student loan debt has been skyrocketing over the years, becoming a huge problem for many families. More than 40 million borrowers have a combined $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, with an average balance of $29,000 per student, according to Experian.

Part of the reason that more students are incurring debt is because many don’t know about what alternative aid resources there are available for them. Students are told there are thousands of dollars in scholarships and financial aid, but they aren’t directed to where those resources actually are or taught how to find them.

We need to do a better job of connecting students to available help. Knowledge of the types of assistance available can be challenging because there are so many different places to apply to receive aid. The College Scholarship Service Financial Aid Profile is used at some universities to award institutional aid. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is used to determine financial need for federal aid resources. The state also has grants for Virginia residents, such as the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant through the State Council for Higher Education.

In addition to awareness of aid availability in high school, some students struggle with locating assistance once they are enrolled in a college. Financial aid offices assist with federal and state aid, but they do not always help students find scholarships. Some schools have several scholarships available, but they may be administered in multiple locations across the campus, making it like a treasure hunt to locate them. Some students miss the deadlines for applications or learn about them after they are no longer eligible.

Colleges should have a single designated location where all university scholarships are listed. An online system where all university aid is available would allow teachers and counselors across the campus to direct students to one website for resources. It also would help administrators of scholarships to more easily advertise their opportunities.

Students also would be able to submit their applications electronically to avoid misplaced hard copy applications. Professors could upload letters of recommendation directly into the system.

The online scholarship system could also send email reminders to students about upcoming deadlines if students register using their student identification number and email account.

This would help expediting applications and increasing the number of students applying to aid, and that would help increasing retention and graduation rates.

My alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, provides thousands of dollars in scholarships through the undergraduate admissions office, the honors college, national scholarship office, the staff senate, business services, the global education office, the college of humanities and sciences, the alumni office, the veteran affairs office, VCU Arts Foundation, The VCU Brandcenter, several major specific departments, numerous student organizations and fraternity or sorority awards.

A single website where all scholarships within a college were housed would expedite the process of students applying for aid.

Colleges need to increase their transparency of aid opportunities for students and make information more readily available. High schools should expand college preparedness programs to include long term financial planning, college aid resources and ways to lower college costs.

SantaLucia, a Landstown native, founded the nonprofit Scholarship Sharing, which connects families to scholarship opportunities. 

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