Study: Malibu High students missing out on aid

File Photo: Seniors in the class of 2011 celebrate graduation.

Less than 60 percent of seniors in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District applied for financial aid to go to college in the 2012-13 school year, missing out on key opportunities to fund their higher education, according to a new report.

The report, released by Education Trust-West, a research organization that seeks to improve education policy, shows that the numbers were slightly higher than the state average, where only 54 percent of seniors completed the federal financial aid form, called FAFSA, and 50 percent finished the Cal Grants application, which taps into state funds.

It shows that low-income students may be missing out on potentially hundreds of millions of student aid dollars.

“Too many California students never get the opportunity to attend college because their families believe they cannot afford tuition,” said Orville Jackson, author of the report and senior research analyst at Education Trust-West.

“Our analysis suggests that thousands of academically qualified, low-income students are losing out on their college dreams because they weren’t given the information and encouragement they needed to fill out a financial aid application,” he said.

Although 55 percent of SMMUSD seniors in the 2012-13 school year completed applications for federal aid and 56 percent completed applications for state aid, those numbers varied widely within the two traditional high schools.

Santa Monica High School seniors applied at much higher rates than did seniors at Malibu High School, with 58 percent completing federal applications compared to only 39 percent of Malibu seniors.

Cal Grant numbers were similar — 59 percent of Santa Monica High School seniors completed the forms compared to 44 percent of Malibu High seniors.

Many students don’t believe they qualify for financial aid, or miss the deadline, said Ah Chi Young, a certified college counselor that serves Malibu High School.

Some were concerned about their immigration status, a worry that has since been lifted by the passage of Assembly Bill 540, also called the California Dream Act.

The Dream Act allows students to skip the federal aid form, which they otherwise would be unable to use without residency or a green card. That opens a number of doors for illegal immigrants because it allows them to take advantage of in-state tuition rates, apply for Cal Grants and campus-specific scholarships.

“It’s something college counselors have been waiting to hear for some time,” Young said. She’s already helped some students fill out the form.

Other students simply don’t believe that financial aid will help them further their educational goals.

Cal Grants only contribute $4,000 per year to for-profit private schools compared to $9,084 for nonprofit private institutions. Other for-profit schools, like the Art Institute of California, are on no-fly lists. The state will not give money to students to go to those schools because of their low graduation rates and high levels of student loan default, Young said.

According to the report, schools with the highest form completion rates ranged in terms of the relative wealth of their student bodies and even their academic performance.

What they all shared, however, was institutional support to both manage data needed to apply for financial aid and outreach to parents and students to educate them about the opportunities available.

Education Trust-West ended its report with a handful of recommendations to improve application rates, like stepping up efforts to encourage kids to apply and submitting grade point average and graduation verifications in bulk to make it easier on students.

SMMUSD already does that, Young said, and is one of the few local districts to employ credentialed college counselors to help students rather than handing the responsibility to a classified employee who helps provide resources.

“It’s really special that Santa Monica-Malibu employs credentialed college counselors. It’s not a normal thing at a public district,” she said.

The report comes at a time when the district is examining its progress in preparing students for college. Terry Deloria, the assistant superintendent of Educational Services, told the Board of Education in February that college graduates make more money and have more opportunity than their peers with only a high school degree.

A previous version of this story appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.