Todd Hicks was asked by the WACAC Communications Committee to share his thoughts, experiences, and advice on working from home and how best to continue helping students during these uncertain times. Todd Hicks is the Director of University Access and Success at Cristo Rey San José


Supporting First Gen, Low-income students from home – a call for action

This post was imagined before any shelter-in-place orders were enacted to highlight challenges faced by low-income families in California. As this population just expanded exponentially, I am thankful for WACAC for providing this space to call for action.

As the Director of University Access and Success for Cristo Rey San José, I am charged with supporting our graduates to-and through-college. All Cristo Rey students come from low-income families and participate in a work study program to contribute to the cost of their college prep education. In many ways our students are lucky; each has a chromebook, and a social worker was already helping families sign up for discounted wifi access before instruction moved online. Nonetheless, staying focused on class work in cramped, anxiety-filled spaces is a challenge.  Over the past weeks, I have also been working with our alumni as they try to adapt to online education after returning home. All of these interactions have me thinking about how to prepare students and families making enrollment decisions with the potential of fall classes being delayed, online, or a hybrid. And also, what we can do as a community to make the student experience less uncertain.

Overall, the advice we offer has not changed as a result of the virus. We encourage students to choose the college that offers the support they need to obtain their degree in the shortest amount of time and with the least amount of debt. What has become clear in our counseling is that the pandemic has amplified systemic injustices within the financial aid process in higher education, disproportionately impacting 1st generation and students of color.

Nevertheless, I’d like to thank the university professionals who are responding to the needs of current and prospective students as information and resources emerge from federal, state, and institutional leaders. I understand that people are working overtime to engage with students: processing desperately needed refunds for residence halls and dining facilities, and turning prospective student events into virtual experiences. Please know that your compassion and sensitivity in the face of uncertainty is greatly appreciated. In particular, I’d like to call out UC Merced’s Alejandro Delgadillo, a hero for many of our students. Without his support dozens of our graduates would not be enrolling and persisting in college. I would also like to thank Meredith Curry for a recent series of articles that highlights the financial aid realities and challenges faced by 1st generation college students, Financial Aid, College Choice, and COVID-19.

Unfortunately, what our students need requires more than what a single individual or institution can provide. This post is a plea for WACAC members to write to your elected officials with your observations, and to ask WACAC to take a more active advocacy role in addressing inequity in college access.

Financial Aid Verification

I’d like to start with a call to action regarding financial aid verification. Verification is the process that selected students must complete after submitting the FAFSA or Dream Act, before they can receive an award. In the case of the CSU system, this process must be completed before a student receives an award letter. The Financial Aid Conundrum documents how many counselors are not prepared with the time and/or expertise to guide students through the maze of different financial aid requirements. In short, the completion of the FAFSA or Dream Act application is just the first step to a student receiving an award letter.

Knowing that a majority of low-income students are selected for verification, we had students request tax transcripts from the IRS early in the year. This is often an arduous process – especially for parents who do not have Social Security Numbers. And, with COVID-19, the IRS and Selective Service have curtailed access to their systems to access confirmation documents. While there has been guidance to allow families to submit signed 1040s, many students lack printers and are scrambling to learn how to scan documents using their phones and annotate PDFs. Moreover, students are now dealing with trying to document income changes from 2019, as well as the collapse of family wages as a result of business closures in 2020. The article The Power of Student Resilience and Choice offers links to free resources to help students navigate the award comparison and appeal process, but the reality is that regardless of a May or June decision deadline, many students will not know how much aid they will receive when making their decision.

While little can be done in the next month, we should expect better in the future. With the CSS Profile and IDOCS, we know that it is possible to have a centralized financial aid verification system that can be accessed by different institutions. The CSU and UC campuses have already come together to create system-wide applications, expanding this approach to financial aid verification is a logical extension.

Implementing a UC/CSU verification system where students upload their documents once to be accessed by any campus would save thousands of hours for students, counselors, and financial aid officers, as well as to increase yield and decrease summer melt from vulnerable students who are currently giving up as a result of verification fatigue.

Dream Loan Program

While we are at it, let’s also call for a Statewide DREAM Loan program that can be utilized at any California college.

Work Study Awards

While those are big asks, we could also expect colleges to stop posting misleading work study awards. I have rarely seen a student earn more than 2,000 during the school year, and awarding more than 3k seems disingenuous. Some UCs and CSUs put in work-study awards of $5000 or $6000, but what happens when the student isn’t able to earn that amount? Unrealistic work study awards are confusing to students and families and would create a budget deficit for the student. What purpose does this serve?

In this period of uncertainty, we can be certain of some things that need to change to improve equity and access. To move in that direction, WACAC has an opportunity to take a more active advocacy role. WACAC does not currently have an apparatus that allows our organization to directly advocate for our students; the association only comments on legislation that is already under consideration.

Our students need – and deserve – more! If we are indeed the experts that our state representatives can rely on for guidance, as I was told when I attended the WACAC Legislative Conference, then we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, waiting for others to call attention or propose legislation while thousands of students are left behind year after year. Instead, we need to put solutions on the table! If not as an organization, as individuals who see the needs of our students – particularly those with limited resources.

I greatly appreciate you reading this post. I hope you will be moved to write to your elected officials with your concerns, and that you will ask WACAC to take direct action in addressing the challenges facing your students.

A list of advocacy suggestions from a group of CBO counselors are listed below for your consideration:

  • Create a centralized financial aid verification system for all CA public colleges (similar to IDOC for CSS Profile colleges), where students upload documents to be accessed by any campus within the system.
  • Complete financial aid appeals for changes to prior prior year income before May 1st for HS seniors
  • Standardize enrollment and housing deposit reduction/waiver policy across the system for Pell/Cal-grant eligible students?
  • Include health insurance fees on the financial aid award letters to allow students without insurance to accurately assess costs before making an enrollment decision, while making it clear what fees will be waived if they have insurance
  • Limit work study awards to something a student might actually be able to earn
  • Acknowledge exceptions and alternatives to using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool when requesting verification documents
  • Expect CSU campuses to accept NACAC or College Board fee waivers for application fees, when counselors are aware of extenuating circumstances
  • Create Dream Loan program that could be accessed by undocumented students at any accredited college in California
  • Accept the new NACAC Enrollment fee waiver form when students are in situations without access to a counselor