Guest Blog from OSAC in Washington D.C.

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By Lori Ellis and Kristin Vreeland, HECC Office of Student Access and Completion

I am sure that you can all imagine our excitement when we found out that Oregon’s FAFSA Plus+ program was nominated and selected to participate in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher FAFSA Convening at the White House on October 21st. There was much celebration here at OSAC amongst our colleagues, shared the excitement with our esteemed colleagues at the HECC, and best wishes from our FAFSA Plus+ and ASPIRE sites across the state.

For those of you who missed the recent press release about this program, FAFSA Plus+ program is a pilot initiative launched in spring 2014, which resulted in a 5 percent increase in Oregon high school students at 42 participating high schools across the state completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

In the days leading up to the convening, the hustle and bustle here at OSAC never slowed with ASPIRE site visits, the annual ASPIRE Fall Conference, outreach at college fairs, and Counselor Conference presentations. There wasn’t much time to revel in our anticipation because we were all so busy!

On the day of the convening, the excitement and prestige of participating in such an exciting event finally sunk in. We were incredibly proud and honored to share Oregon’s success in expanding the number of students applying for financial aid, and excited to hear about other states’ work to eliminate barriers for first-generation students.

We arrived at the White House in the morning, and the sun was shining bright with a brisk breeze. After the required security checks, we joined Greg Darnieder, senior advisor to the secretary on the college access initiative and a strong supporter of ASPIRE, as well as other FAFSA completion initiative program leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Building. It was amazing to meet our counterparts from other states with whom we have been communicating through email and through the FAFSA online Professional Learning Community led by Colorado. We presented on Oregon’s FAFSA Plus+ program, sharing how the program was started, some challenges the program has experienced, and the technical support we provide to the sites. We highlighted the terrific bipartisan support that Oregon has had for college and career readiness. OSAC administers the Oregon ASPIRE program that has received strong support from educational leaders across the state, and the program has built a strong, sustainable infrastructure. Using the success of ASPIRE, we modeled our FAFSA program around this solid program. There were many questions and comments about how we were able to receive such strong buy-in for the program, and requests to see our program materials.

Oregon’s innovative work with schools was truly appreciated and we should be proud of our achievements so far in FAFSA outreach, but we like many states still have much work to do to improve pathways for first generation students. We were there to learn best practices with others across the nation, and we did. For example, Utah has an excellent training platform that they use to train people accessing the student level FAFSA data. Other states have agreements with their state departments of education to make the data upload process more streamlined. We will be forever grateful for this opportunity to learn from other states and share the developments that we have made here in Oregon to increase FAFSA completion on a national stage. We left the convening newly energized by what we learned from other states, and ready to reach higher.

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All About Scholarships!

1.  SCHOLARSHIPS:  Free Money?

Free Money?  Maybe from a selfish standpoint, but not really.  Scholarships are investments that are repaid with careers that benefit specific purposes or society in general.  But, scholarships don’t come free; individuals, clubs, and companies work very hard to generate money to award to students who prove worthy of educational investment risks.  Scholarships are not like lottery winnings; they are awarded as a result of successful appeals in the form of Scholarship Applications.

2.  SCHOLARSHIP APPLICATIONS:  Getting to the WHY
So, the issue is, WHY should an entity who doesn’t even know you speculate on your success in school and in your career?  The answer to the WHY has how you fit the criteria for which the scholarship is to be awarded.  Unless your application clearly shows your match with this criterion, you will not even be considered.  The final decisions search for the very best match with scholarship intentions.

3.  SCHOLARSHIPS:  Where do you find them?
First, let’s be clear:  Finding and Applying for scholarships are YOUR jobs!  The ASPIRE program attempts to identify as many scholarships as possible, but consider this your starting point.  YOU must take it from there.  There are many resources available in the ASPIRE room, in the newspapers, on the internet, at individual schools and universities, at potential professional career organizations, at clubs, at churches, at businesses, ….. and the list goes on and on.  If you want scholarship opportunities, YOU make them!

4.  SCHOLARSHIPS:  Critical Criteria
Once you find a potential scholarship, your application becomes your representative in the award competition.  You must meet all of the scholarship criteria.  First – read the application to see what’s needed.  Don’t take this lightly!  If you omit a required document, chances are you won’t even make it to first base.  There will be lots of applicants, and the first screen will be “is this application complete?”.   We’re speaking from experience here folks.  As participants on several scholarship evaluation teams, we’ve seen and used the trash can at the end of the table for many applications that don’t conform to stated requirements.  Pay particular attention to:

  1. Due Dates
  2. How the Application is to be assembled
  3. Required Application contents
  4. Required references, letters of recommendations, transcripts, etc.
  5. The Quality and Appearance of your submittal package

5.  REALLY IMPORTANT CRITERIA:  Grades and Activity Charts
We just cannot emphasize enough the importance of Grades and Activity Charts (or excerpts, as required) in the packaging of scholarship applications.  If you don’t jump these critical hurdles, you just won’t make it.  Freshmen – NOW is the time to start work on these most important High School efforts!!

                                                                                                                                                                  Author:  Will Rutherford