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African-Americans and Online Financial Aid


Introduction

As the Information Age develops the use of the Internet has far surpassed personal use. It is now a way to conduct business, a source of entertainment, and most importantly a critical learning tool when entering the academic sphere. College-bound high school junior and seniors use mobile apps, social media, email, and the Internet to conduct their university inquiries. This includes reviewing dormitory food, course evaluations, and surroundings campus favorites- giving an authentic chance for students to learn about college on their own. The use of the Internet is becoming more essential for personal development. This being said the digital divide is a recurring problem for students in low-income homes and schools.

Besides being able to search colleges recreationally, those with Internet access are able to complete their enrollment needs more easily. This research will investigate the difficulties African-American students in low-income areas face when applying for financial aid via the Internet. Affordability is a huge factor when deciding to attend a university, therefore being on the short end of the cyber world creates a power hierarchy between the have and have not’s.

Literature Review

The Role of Being a Have-Not

In 2010, The Journal of Black Higher Education Foundation[1] outlined the effects of the digital divide in the amount of Internet access and home computer ownership for African-American students seeking higher education. By not having access to the Internet, the students risk having a decreased amount of college readiness compared to their peers.

The inability to study for college admission tests such as the ACT or SAT, search for college fairs, seek advice from advisor and professors, or apply to universities in general are few of the reasons not having a home computer or Internet widens the educational gap between the have and have-nots. “Internet connections in the home allows college-bound students to mine the vast ordine [sp] information resources of the U.S. Department of Education where they can obtain valuable data on admissions, graduation rates, campus crime, and financial aid”, the Foundation concludes.

The Role of Experience and Financial Aid

According to Kristian M. Venegas[2], low-income students that do have access to computers lack the knowledge and support needed to navigate the financial aid resources available online. To continue Venegas states, “the Internet is used as part of the financial aid and college application process. The value of the online experience expedited financial aid processes results in more time to make choices about college attendance and adjust to the transition from high school to college”, meaning those who have access to the online financial aid sources FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) had more time to results than those who submitted a paper form.

Later, Venegas discovered that students visited sites such as FAFSA.ed.gov, CollegeBoard.org, FastWeb.com, and the State’s official web page for their financial aid needs including scholarship opportunities. However, many found difficult to understand the layout of the sites or found them to not present the information needed in a straightforward manner. Also, many sites required parent involvement or a special login- preventing students for continuing their research. Table 1, displays the additional pros and cons students encountered while using the Internet for financial aid services.

The final argument presented by Venegas proposes that “despite past findings that low-income students have little access to computers and the Internet , the students who participated in this study reported computer access in multiple places: home, school, and community. Although access to computing equipment may be increasing, going online for college processes presents more complicated issues. Using financial aid Web sites seems to be a tricky task. Entering passwords, social security numbers, and other personal information seem to further complicate the process”, further suggesting an increase of financial aid knowledge for parents and counselors.

The Role of Social Background on Financial Aid

Though Venegas argues that the “digital divide” is not as much of a concern today as it has been in the past, there are still students that lack Internet access and computer ownership. In Is Opportunity Knocking? Low-Income Students' Perceptions of College and Financial Aid, author Mari Luna De La Rosa, discusses other ways students learn about financial aid without the Internet. Many students sought information from teachers, counselors, and coaches. The second persons consulted were college representative along with family members. Table 4 exhibits the vast amount of sources students used for financial aid information, the Internet being listed fifth.

[4]

Due to the students’ comprehension of financial aid being gained from their social environment many are discouraged to seek high education or did not make it a concern until their senior year of high school. To conclude Mari Luna De La Rosa’s explains, “It is clear that low-income students make sense of this information within their school culture, core beliefs about college affordability, and family backgrounds. These findings add to the discussion of ways that low-income students and families access information about college and financial aid at the school and community levels,” later advising financial aid programs to understand the students and their family’s awareness of financial aid information and resources.

The Role of Application Assistance

With the low-awareness of usage surrounding online financial aid opportunities, H&R Block acknowledged that the complexities of navigating sources such as FAFSA.ed.gov. To refute this matter of concern, H&R Block[5] offered immediate assistance financial aid to low-income person ($45,000 a year or below) seeking tax preparation help, for their children or themselves. The process with H&R Block’s service took the participant ten minutes with little error, making completing the FAFSA more encouraging.

Once the FAFSA experiment concluded, high school seniors who parents took the initiative to participate were 8 percentage points more likely to have completed two years of college, going from 28% to 36%, during the first three years following the experiment.

African-Americans and the Difficulties of Online Financial Aid

The JBHE Foundation reported[6] that in 2009, only 54.5% of all African-American households had Internet access compared to 73.3% of Caucasian households. Though today the overall gap of Internet access is decreasing due to libraries, schools, and other facilities. Websites such as the previously discussed, FAFSA.ed.gov, CollegeBoard.com, and FastWeb.com are some of the few sites dedicated to providing information and resources regarding financial aid. However, it is apparent that having the Internet available at ones fingertips does not make the process of financial aid easier alone. The ability to go online and know how to search financial needs is important as well. In fact, students may become discouraged from the overwhelming amount of information presented, making it challenging to complete in all.

When seeking advice “low-income Black and Hispanic students were more likely to read information and speak to teachers, guidance counselors, and college representatives about financial aid”[7].It is great that these students are being proactive, but many of those they seek advice lack formal training as well[8]. Families tend to be more cautious with the information needed to complete services like FAFSA, which generally ask for the student’s parent’s tax reports, social security numbers, and other personal data. However, high school seniors with parents that had some college education tend to have higher college aspiration and higher financial aid awareness, making their process more attainable. For example, while in high school some of my peers made attending college seem much simpler than I because they knew a family member that could guide them through the steps. Whereas other were quickly discouraged due to no previous knowledge of what they were doing or help from others.

Living in a low-income home can make the idea of attending college seem unrealistic. If a student is able to complete their financial aid issues could still arise. According to Venegas in Internet Inequalities: Financial Aid, the Internet, and Low-Income Students “students displayed a lack of knowledge about the follow-through processes of financial aid. Students were unaware of how to check on the status of their financial aid applications, scholarship applications, and financial aid offers. Important information regarding application mistakes and correction approvals went undiscovered in email boxes that were rarely used. Individual student information portals were not activated in a timely manner, preventing students from accessing time-sensitive information.”

While entering my last days as a senior in high school I remember filling out FAFSA by myself. The information asked from me was quite confusing for a teenager. The school I attended held about 1,500 students, but there was only one guidance counselor and neither of my parents attended college. In fact, asking my parents for such intimate information was difficult. They did not understand why all of it was needed and left out critical information. The consequences of this was the three of us collectively having to pay my freshman year at Indiana State University out of pocket, costing around $8,000.

The mistake I made was not including my step-brother and Uncle who were both sharing my parent’s income as well as myself. This made my FAFSA appear as if I were the only child being supported by two parents, which was not the case at all. Along with not entering the information correctly, I also turned it in past the priority date causing me to lose even more financial aid. This mistake has carried a financial burden for myself as well as my parents ever since. I am a living example of what problems having a lack of knowledge surrounding financial aid can cause.

Conclusion

The Internet is a necessary asset for college-bound students, especially when seeking help for financial aid. However, having the proper support system and expertise is just as essential. Without this, students are more likely to not attend a university due to expenses. The difficulties of understanding financial aid is not only from the layout of the websites, but the amount of information needed as well.The lack of knowledge can be solved through more financial training from university themselves or even libraries. Lastly, if more tax preparation companies followed H&R Block’s trend the accuracy of information and the amount of time spent on services like FAFSA.ed.gov would be more efficient.

[1] The Persisting Racial Digital Divide in Internet Access

[2] Internet Inequalities: Financial Aid, the Internet, and Low-Income Students

[3] Internet Inequalities: Financial Aid, the Internet, and Low-Income Students

[4] Is Opportunity Knocking? Low-Income Students' Perceptions of College and Financial Aid

[5] The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment

[6] The Persisting Racial Digital Divide in Internet Access

[7] Is Opportunity Knocking? Low-Income Students' Perceptions of College and Financial Aid

[8] Internet Inequalities: Financial Aid, the Internet, and Low-Income Students


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