08-02-2019 · College Bound

United Way of Greater Atlanta has stepped in to help students navigate the complicated forms required to apply for federal student aid — students like Ijeoma Orianwo.

Orianwo knows just how difficult it can be to apply for college funding through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid [FAFSA] for the first time.

Orianwo had college and career advisers when she was a senior and Benjamin E. Mays High School in Fulton County. She said they guided her and told her what she would need to apply and when she would need to apply.

But, Orianwo still had issues with the forms. Orianwo said when the time came for her mother to provide income data, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, an online tool that will electronically transfer federal tax returns into the FAFSA form, the tools didn’t work. She had to call and ask that the information be sent so she could input it manually.

“We had missed deadlines, and then we had to talk to the IRS,” Orianwo said. “Even then, we had to wait two weeks — business days— and then I had to send it to the schools I applied to.”

Orianwo had been given opportunities to prepare for college, she had received a scholarship through Achieve Atlanta and then she had taken all of the necessary steps to apply to college.

But there are still issues that she encountered that made the process difficult.

On top of the stress of finishing school and applying for colleges, Orianwo had added stress of completing the FAFSA form.

It’s the same issue that many of the students across Greater Atlanta are facing. There are barriers to filling out the form, confusion about the process, lack of awareness about money available and the fear of the unknown.

That’s why United Way of Greater Atlanta launched a new program last spring to help students in select high schools apply for college funding by filling out the FAFSA form.

United Way hosted a pilot event for the College Bound program, which is sponsored by Delta Air Lines, last spring at Tri-Cities High School in East Point in Fulton County. Only about half of Georgia’s graduating high school seniors will complete the FAFSA form, leaving millions of dollars of federal student aid on the table each year. Of those that complete the FAFSA form, 90 percent will go on to enroll in post-secondary education.

United Way of Greater Atlanta is partnering with schools, nonprofit organizations and volunteers to host events that bring critical resources to students and their families to help make college accessible. Trained volunteers will offer sessions on-site to students and their families to help eliminate some of the confusion that comes along with these forms.

Janika Floyd, a Title-1 Liaison for Tri-Cities High School, said during the College Bound event, she could see the students begin to realize that the process, while involved, was nothing to be afraid of.

“I did see the lightbulb start to come on,” Floyd said. “I could see the difference and they felt at ease. We offered a breakfast area, and they could sit and wait. They [volunteers] were talking to parents.

“They were excited that they could get that assistance, that it wasn’t so daunting and now they were like, ‘What’s next?’ That worked out very nicely, and the assistance did make a difference.”

Orianwo is a senior at Kennesaw State University studying psychology, with a certificate of child advocacy studies. She plans after college to go straight into a Master’s of Social Work program.

The south Atlanta native said her career plans are to work with children in foster care, juveniles and first-generation college students.

She wants to encourage young students now to apply for FAFSA as soon as they can and realize that there’s no reason to be afraid.

“Truthfully, I would just tell people to relax,” Orianwo said. “I would tell them to apply early — the earlier you apply, the more money you will receive, and if you are confused, then find a support system.

“It’s your first year, so I understand why it can be confusing, and it can be a lot. It’s just an application. If you’ve got a job or applied for schools before, then you’ve filled out an application.”

United Way of Greater Atlanta will host free College Bound events from October 2019 – January 2020 with the goal of increasing FAFSA completion rates by 5 percent at participating schools.

Learn more here.