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Hawaii News

Community colleges advocate financial aid

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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / crussell@staradvertiser.com

Windward Community College assists students and their parents at Windward Mall with applications for financial aid, accredited colleges, Kame­ha­meha Schools and various scholarships. Their services are free. Pictured in the office are WCC Recruitment and Outreach Counselor Gus Cobb-Adams and Financial Aid Assistant Ku'ulei Daniluck.

Concerned that local students are missing out on financial aid, Hawaii’s community colleges are reaching out to help them apply for it, not just on campus, but even at the shopping mall.


Open through May; will reopen in November
>> Location: Windward Mall, in the Kamehameha Schools office on the second floor
>> Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Monday; closed on holidays

"We wanted to take the services into the community because we’re finding that the same student who is at the mall may be anxious about stepping on campus," said Judy Oli­veira-Souza, director of Educational Talent Search at Windward Community College. "But everyone goes to the mall."

"Interestingly, a lot of families feel they shouldn’t be asking for money," she added. "Local families tend to expect grandparents or aunties or uncles to help pitch in. The federal government is here to do that for you."

Windward Community College operates a free one-stop shop at Windward Mall during the financial aid season, which runs through May. It will open again in November. Professional counselors are on hand from Friday evening through Monday to answer questions about college, walk students through the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and help with college and scholarship applications. Kame­ha­meha Schools allows the college to use its storefront at the mall at a minimal cost when it is not otherwise in use.

"Anybody’s welcome to walk into that office and receive assistance to access financial aid opportunities or get an application ready to apply to college, whether it be us or any other college," said Lui Hoko­ana, vice chancellor of student affairs at Windward Community College. "An education is important, and we have the resources to help them fund an education. The cost shouldn’t be a barrier."

Traditionally, Hawaii students have fallen short of their mainland peers in getting financial aid for college. Nationally, close to half of college students are offered financial aid, but the rate at Hawaii’s community colleges ranged from 18 percent to 35 percent in the 2006-07 school year, depending on the campus, according to Hoko­ana. The community colleges set a goal three years ago to offer 50 percent of enrolled students financial aid in five years.

All seven campuses have boosted their numbers, and financial aid access rates ranged from 24 percent to 50 percent in the last school year. Preliminary data show that four colleges are on track to meet the 50 percent goal this year, according to Hoko­ana. Part of the increase is due to economic need, with more people qualifying for aid because of families losing jobs or work hours. But the schools’ efforts are making a difference in getting students to apply.

"We think it’s a combination of the economy and what we’re doing at the school," Hoko­ana said.

At the University of Hawaii’s Maui College, formerly known as Maui Community College, the fraction of enrolled students offered financial aid hit 50 percent by the end of the last school year, up from 35 percent in 2006-07. Total financial aid awarded soared to $15.6 million in 2009-10 from $5 million three years earlier, while school enrollment grew by 50 percent. And financial aid applications are up again this year.

"We’ve seen overall across the UH system increases in enrollment," said Cathy Bio, financial aid officer at Maui College. "What I find really interesting is the increase in financial aid applications is well over and beyond the enrollment increase."

Her school has cobbled together federal and other funds to pay for a financial aid outreach counselor for each of the past three years. It is working to obtain funds to make the position permanent. The staff also made a point of contacting students who had started financial aid applications to make sure they were completed.

Windward Community College has also extended its outreach efforts, including opening the one-stop shop in January 2010.

"This is another $7 million we’re putting into this economy," Hoko­ana said. "That is a lot of money for a community like Windward."

Most community college students receiving aid are offered federal Pell grants, which are cash awards. There is no deadline to fill out the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but because some financial assistance is available on a first-come, first-served basis, counselors encourage students to apply as soon as possible.

A survey of students at Hawaii’s community colleges found that the main reason students weren’t applying for financial aid was that they thought they wouldn’t qualify.

"They weren’t bothering to apply because they didn’t think they would get anything," Bio said. "They didn’t realize that they really should apply. That’s the message: Just do it. And there are resources to help them do that."

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