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Navigating the financial aid application process is intimidating for most. So, imagine what it is like for the neediest students--those who enter the process with no college savings account and, most likely, no parent or family member who has ever been a college applicant.

These students are the ones who need aid the most, yet they make up the cohort of applicant that is often the least informed about the financial aid application process.

Information Divide. A 2003 Harris Poll, commissioned by The Sallie Mae Fund (www.thesalliemaefund.org), revealed that 45 percent of parents surveyed with incomes less than $25,000 per year have "no idea" how they will pay for college. Minority families also indicated they need more information--66 percent of black parents and 62 percent of Hispanic parents said they did not have enough information, versus 44 percent of white parents. Complicating the issue: The neediest students often become aware of financial aid information a good two years after students with greater financial resources.

In the effort to get crucial financial aid information to the families who need it most, Sallie Mae teamed up with the National Association for College Admission Counseling (www.nacac.com), for Project Access. The project has a number of informational components, including regional workshops on financial aid, booklets, a Web site, and a toll-free number that leads to more resources. There are even scholarships available. Still, only time will tell if a program such as this one can even make a dent in the problem.

Cleaning up the act with SOAP. Start with young students, urges Judith Lewis Logue, director of Financial Aid at the University of San Diego and the chair of the CAL SOAP (California Student Opportunity and Access Program) advisory committee (on the Web at www.sandiegocalsoap.com). SOAP is 24 years old and was founded with the sole purpose of helping students who don't have easy access to higher education. Educators and administrators based at 16 schools and locations throughout California, are constantly on the lookout for low-income students who would be first-generation college students. SOAP begins at the fourth-grade level by arranging for youngsters to visit college campuses and even sit in on some classes. By the time these students reach sixth grade, SOAP is targeting their parents and extended families by selling them on the value of higher education. "Once the parents are convinced, they support the students studying hard and getting good grades," says Logue, adding that students and their families soon become more mindful about the types of courses needed to get into college.

High school students tapped for the SOAP program are constantly apprised of deadlines for tests and academic and financial applications. Perhaps the most powerful component is SOAP's mentoring program, which matches up high school seniors with college students who made it to a higher education via SOAP. These students meet with their younger peers to go over applications and college info. "They look across the table and say, 'I didn't think I could do it either, but here I am helping you.' That's very powerful," says Logue. In total, SOAP reaches 100,000 students annually. An average of 70 percent of SOAP outreach high school seniors do go on to college.

Daniels is a boon. The Daniels Fund (www.danielsfund.org), now three years old and based in Colorado, has a similar mission for students in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah. Through college preparation and scholarships, Daniels--named for and founded by cable TV magnate William Daniels--targets students from low-income families who have the intention to go to college. They are invited to write an essay and are selected for their aspirations. There is no minimum GPA needed to get the help. "We are looking for students who may have tripped and who need help getting up," says Morris Price, director of University and College Relations for the fund. The fund's administrators work to match students with the right higher ed experience.

Colorado Mountain College, a community college system with seven campuses, has worked with students helped by the Daniels fund. David Borofsky, VP for the college, applauds the effort to make the financial aid process--and the process of accessing higher ed--easier for the neediest students. "This is not a customer-friendly system," he says, adding that the school tries to do its part by hosting financial aid nights where high school administrators and parents can meet with administrators from the school. He and other campus leaders reach out to the community to look for the types of students the Daniels Fund targets.

More government help on the way? Currently, the College Board (www.collegeboard.com) is pressing the federal government to use the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to ensure more grants and financial aid options for the neediest students. Gaston Caperton, College Board president, wants more money poured into the Pell Grant program, and cautions schools to not allow merit-based aid to eclipse needs-based financial aid. In 1975, the maximum Pell Grant covered 84 percent of the cost to attend a public, four-year university. Today, the maximum Pell--$4,000 annually--will cover only 42 percent of the cost, at best.

Successfully engineering change in a corporation is a process that only the most visionary CEOs can accomplish. Transforming an academic institution may be even harder.

Few topics are hotter right now than that of tuition pricing and discounting. And that's because across the country, colleges and universities are taking no end of approaches to the matter. Which institutions are on target? Which are not? Some have historically taken a high price/high discount approach. Others have kept price and discount increases suppressed. Some have cut prices, while others have dramatically increased price to reposition against competitors.

One of the most vexing issues in financial aid today has to do with efficiency: If a school has $10,000 to spend on scholarships or tuition discounting, it can probably get more institutional benefit-in terms of enrollments, tuition revenue, and student quality-by spreading the money among four or five middle-income students rather than investing it in a single high-need student. Schools may prefer to provide access to the poorest students, but the incentives built into the current financial aid system are hard to ignore.

A dip in the economy is hard on everyone, but for higher education, hard times are aggravated by a kind of triple whammy of financial need: When the economy dips, more parents and students are out of work, and more investments shrivel. The result: Colleges and universities are asked to meet more financial need. State legislatures, faced with eroding tax revenues and increased demands on the state coffers, cut funding to education. The result: less money to meet the increased student need.

Welcome to University Business's special report on student finance, the first of a regular series of special reports on the subject. Student finance has long been an important aspect of the business of higher education, but in the past few years we've seen it become more and more central to the way that institutions operate, to the point where it seems to us that everyone on senior administrative levels-everyone who has an impact on institutional strategy-needs to be thinking about the Financial Aid office and how it fits in.

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