Dakarai Ponder was two credits away from graduating early from Tri-Cities High School in East Point in Fulton County.
But what would graduating early get him? It was late in the school year, and he didn’t know if he would have the ability to apply for financial assistance or if it would even be available for him if he did graduate early, his mother Tonya Ponder says.
That uncertainty isn’t uncommon.
It’s an issue that many students across Greater Atlanta are faced with each year. There are already barriers in place that make it difficult to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid [FAFSA]. There are barriers in filling out the form, confusion about the process, lack of awareness about money available and fear of the unknown.
United Way of Greater Atlanta has stepped in to help students and their families navigate the complicated forms required to apply for federal student aid. United Way 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 partners 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 offer sessions on-site to students and their parents to help eliminate some of the confusion that comes along with these forms.
Only about half of Georgia’s graduating high school seniors will complete the FAFSA form, which means millions of dollars in federal student aid are being left on the table each year. Of those that complete the FAFSA form, 90 percent will go on to enroll in classes beyond high school.
United Way hosted a pilot event for College Bound, which is sponsored by Delta Air Lines, last spring at Tri-Cities High School.
Tonya said she and her son found out about the event through the school’s communications, and they went to the event with an open mind and a list of questions.
“We had just made the decision so late in the year to let him graduate. I have a daughter that is a senior —she’s 11 and a half months older— but with him it was just a little bit later,” Tonya says. “I wanted to speak to someone specifically about timelines, and what I should do. We sat down with a volunteer and had a conversation. We had a 1-on-1, and [Dakarai] was given undivided attention so we could get our questions in.”
Dakarai has always been intelligent and self-motivated. Tonya says he’s been taking advanced courses in school “ever since elementary school.” He’s got big plans for his future. He wants to go to Georgia Tech and earn degrees in architectural design and engineering.
He wants to own his own architectural firm, Tonya says proudly.
“I want to say that, as parents, we always push our kids to the end goal, but he started that on his own in the ‘Building Block Phase,’” Tonya says with a laugh. “He showed that he has a strong skillset, and it’s always been one of his primary goals.”
Tonya says she and her son arrived at the event at Tri-Cities after it had already begun, and other students in the room had been entered into a raffle drawing for prizes.
They had missed the chance to put their name in the drawing. Tonya was sitting at a table with volunteers when the final prize of a Dell laptop was awarded to one of her son’s classmates. Tonya clapped, but didn’t look up from the table.
But then she says her son walked over with the laptop under his arm. The winner of the laptop, a senior girl who was a friend of Dakarai’s, actually gave him the gift instead.
“The room was in tears,” Tonya says. “It was just so unexpected, and honestly it was one of the driving factors that helped him graduate early.
“He went home and busted out those online courses like it was nothing.”
The College Bound event was a great positive experience for Tonya and Dakarai.
“You could tell it was a good experience for everybody there,” Tonya says. “The atmosphere was positive, and it was high energy. It was extremely informative.
“The thing you realize is that there is a lot of information out there, and nothing is dropped into your lap. But that was one of the places that you could go and get all the information you need for a graduating senior.”
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 at unitedwayatlanta.org.