CollegeBound: assistance over the rough spots


If you've ever faced sending a child to college, you know that the hardest part isn't always coming up with the obligatory king's ransom required for admission these days. Long before the first bill arrives, parents and prospective students face a procedural nightmare that can drag on for years.

It ranges from the careful monitoring of a child's high school curriculum, to applying for and getting to the PSAT and SAT tests on time, to researching the hundreds of grants available, to attending college fairs.

Last and certainly worst of all, unless you've just won the lottery, there is the Stephen King horror called the Financial Aid Form -- the FAF -- to suck the last bit of energy from your bones.

Without any doubt, the college-bound process is a team effort that challenges the patience and anxiety levels of all family members involved. Which goes to the heart of a novel city program called the CollegeBound Foundation. It's aim is to assist Baltimore City high school students to negotiate the red tape morass along the path to college.

While the program -- now in its third year and funded by donations from Baltimore businesses -- provides some financial assistance, it's main thrust is to encourage and show students in the 16 city public high schools that college is a viable option, no matter what they've heard.

"We think there are two things that prevent kids from going to college: information and money," said Joyce A. Kroeller, executive director of CollegeBound. "Our main message is that college is possible and that jobs of the future require more education."

Incorporated 2 1/2 years ago as an independent endowment fund, CollegeBound has already assisted thousands of city students, either in helping them register for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or in filling out college applications or the FAF form, which is required of any student who wants to apply for federal assistance.

The foundation also helps organize trips to colleges for groups of students who wish to tour campuses before making their selection. And, says Ms. Kroeller, she is hoping to persuade high school English teachers to include as one of their assignments for juniors and seniors a personal essay, much like the one many colleges require on their applications. "It's a way to institutionalize the idea that you ought to be on the college track," she said.

Like many foundations, CollegeBound provides funds for students, although it sees its financial aid as a "last dollar" approach. Often, when students are motivated to fill out their applications and their FAF, they find they qualify for either scholarships or enough grants and loans to cover most, if not all, of their costs. In some cases, a student may be a few hundred dollars short of affording the tuition costs and that's where CollegeBound comes in.

Last year, for example, CollegeBound provided students with amounts ranging from $682 to $1,100. As CollegeBound commitments from its corporate sponsors grow toward its goal of a $25 million endowment, the foundation hopes eventually to be able to keep funding students through all four years of college. As of now, the endowment is about halfway to its goal.

To accomplish its objectives, CollegeBound maintains a staff of four full-time and three part-time counselors who go into the city high schools and conduct workshops on various phases of the college process.

"We still have kids who say 'We want to go to college, but my mom doesn't have $20,000 so I can't go,' " said Ms. Kroeller. "We tell them that it is possible, that they are most likely eligible for financial aid and that they need to do well in school."

Counselors even pursue students who have dropped out of school and encourage them to get back into the college mindset.

"When our staff goes into schools, there is always a large group of students glued to every word they say," said Ms. Kroeller. "One kid who comes from a family of 12 has an aunt in college, and when the aunt visits her, she takes her by the hand out into the neighborhood and tells people, 'This is my aunt. She goes to college.' But for so many of them, their parents didn't go to college and no one in the family really knows or understands the process. So they think they can't go. I think the information barrier is as strong as the financial barrier." Donors to the program have been quick to appreciate that.

"Corporate executives who donate to this fund are extremely sympathetic because many of them have kids going through college and they know how difficult it is, even with their support," she said.

"I've had vice presidents in accounting firms tell me they had trouble filling out the FAF. There is a lot of irony in the system. That form was supposed to facilitate students getting aid, but it has become one of the barriers."

CollegeBound counselors show students how to negotiate the forms and the pitfalls. "We teach them how to do it themselves," said Ms. Kroeller. "And if our staff gets a student to fill out an application and that student ends up getting a financial aid package, its just beautiful. Students are eligible for this aid but they need help."

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