Student conversing with her high school counselor Photo Credit: Johnny Greig

Supporting Students in Their College Journey

SoCal CAN Played a Lead Role in Organizing Groups to Respond to the FAFSA Crisis

SoCal CAN's network of 127 programs provides direct support to students in the Los Angeles region and advocates for policies and institutional reforms to increase the availability of financial aid and other critical supports.

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This year’s release of a new, “simpler” Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was supposed to be a signature event in supporting more students and families to access the financial aid they need to reach their college dreams. But the rollout of the new form was delayed by three months, and persistent technical glitches meant students and families had huge problems accessing and completing it.  

This has created an unanticipated crisis for equitable college access in the United States, with experts predicting a significant decline in college enrollment for students of color from low-income, first-generation, and immigrant families.  

The “FAFSA fiasco” has highlighted the fact that too many students still face huge barriers in the journey to obtaining a bachelor’s degree and the lifelong rewards that come with it. It’s not just that there is a profound need for financial aid; students also need counseling and other supports to navigate the college-going process. Today, the average number of students assigned to a counselor in California schools is 464 to 1; the recommended ratio is 250 to 1.  

One organization on the frontlines in expanding counseling, financial aid, and other supports for students is Haas Jr. grantee partner the Southern California College Attainment Network (SoCal CAN). The group’s executive director, Alison De Lucca, said the problems with the FAFSA this year have been a clear setback, but SoCal CAN and its partners are determined to keep advancing the message that going to college and earning a bachelor’s degree pays off— big time. They’re also determined to keep doing everything they can to help students find their way to college.  

“The reason this year has been so concerning is that students need every incentive and support to apply to college and enroll and then persist in getting their bachelor’s degree,” she said.

A Student-Centered Movement

The SoCal CAN network includes 127 programs that provide direct support to more than 350,000 high school students in the Los Angeles region as they embark on their college journeys. In addition to supporting students, the groups work together through SoCal CAN to advocate for policies and institutional reforms that will increase the availability of financial aid and other critical supports.  

Marcos Montes, who serves as policy director for SoCal CAN, said the organization’s policy agenda is based on extensive input from students, frontline counselors, and partners across the college access movement. “It’s a bottom-up process where we’re surveying students about the challenges they’re facing, sharing those concerns with college access professionals and partners, and then developing a unified agenda for responding to student voices and meeting their needs,” Montes said.  

SoCal CAN has been committed to improving financial aid programs and recently helped remove administrative barriers, such as age limitation and time out of high school for Cal Grants, California’s state financial aid program. The organization also worked with partners across California to respond to the FAFSA crisis with student-centered solutions such as:  

  • Easing application deadlines for state financial aid;  
  • Extending registration deadlines for public colleges and universities in California; and  
  • Making the California Dream Act Application available as an alternative way to apply for state and institutional financial aid for first-time applicants from mixed-status households in California. (The technical glitches with the FAFSA initially meant these households, where one or more parents do not have a Social Security Number, were totally blocked from completing the application.)

Jessie Ryan, executive vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a statewide organization focused on college access in California, said SoCal CAN’s leadership on the FAFSA issue this year has been crucial. “SoCal CAN stepped up to address the FAFSA challenges at a critical moment,” Ryan said. “When every day of inaction threatened to halt the college dreams of our most vulnerable students, SoCal CAN worked tirelessly with partners like the Campaign for College Opportunity to coalesce around potential policy remedies, student-centered communications strategies, and advocacy to extend the state financial aid and intent to register deadlines.”

Now, SoCal CAN and its partners are already working with the U.S. Department of Education and others to ensure a smoother FAFSA process for students and families next year.  

“Culture Shift”

De Lucca said solutions to the many challenges students face when it comes to finding their way to a high-quality, affordable, and rewarding college degree can only come through collaboration and aligned advocacy.  

“There is no one organization or institution or state policy that can address the widespread inequities that exist in our communities,” she said. “The only way to move the needle on these issues is through collective and shared action.” De Lucca noted that’s why SoCal CAN regularly partners with other advocates—including Haas Jr. grantees like the Campaign for College Opportunity, The Education Trust – West, and the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS).

Manny Rodriguez, director of policy and advocacy for TICAS in California, called SoCal CAN “a crucial partner” in the work of supporting students to find their way to a bachelor’s degree.  He cited SoCal CAN’s work in the FAFSA crisis as a model for powerful organizing and advocacy. 

SoCal CAN's work ensured that the hardships being experienced by our students and families—especially mixed-status families—were not taken lightly and that California's leaders did what they could to extend the time families needed to apply for aid in order to fund their postsecondary education.

Manny Rodriguez, Director of Policy and Advocacy, The Institute for College Access and Success

Montes said the decisive action and collaboration that SoCal CAN and its partners showed in response to the FAFSA crisis is increasingly essential given the messages many of today’s students and families are getting that suggest that going to college might not be worth it.  

“We know for a fact that going to college and getting a degree is the best and surest route to economic mobility and a better life for students and families we’re focused on,” said Montes. He continued, “We want to work with partners to create a real culture shift where more people understand the value of college, and where our systems are working together to provide the supports students need.”

Montes and De Lucca both emphasized the importance of flexible support from funders, including unrestricted general operating funds, in enabling SoCal CAN to achieve its goals. “At the start of the year we were focused on financial aid reform and then we had to pivot overnight to tackling the FAFSA crisis,” said De Lucca. “That’s the power of having funders who believe in us and who trust us to do what we need to do for students.”