Clark College sophomore Dinara Dursun noticed right away the lack of financial assistance for her tuition and fees for fall quarter this year.
“It was emergency grants; that’s what I got last year. And this year, I was like, you know, where’s my money? Where’s that $1,000?”
Dursun, 24, will graduate from Clark in June with an associate degree in digital media arts with a focus in graphic design. Afterward, she plans to transfer to a local university and eventually get a master’s degree, with hopes to one day teach. As of now, however, a lack of federal financial aid is proving to be a barrier to the next steps in her education.
Dursun works part-time at the Archer Gallery. She uses the money she makes working at the financial aid office to pay tuition, and the money from the gallery to pay for things such as gas and food. She’s fortunate, she said, that her husband pays for most of the bills.
She had previously gone through schooling to become a dental assistant but switched gears after she realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do.
“I never had problems with getting money from school,” Dursun said about receiving financial aid for her previous education.
Fewer aid applicants, some federal funding exhausted
As of August, officers in Clark’s financial aid office said they were seeing a 29 percent reduction in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applicants in comparison with last year — a trend that some high school career advisers noted on their end earlier this year, too.
A report from the National College Attainment Network published earlier this year said that 51 percent of Washington’s high school graduate class of 2021 did not complete their FAFSA, leaving $60,103,712 in Pell Grant money on the table. Clark officials have also observed an increase in the average family income on the FAFSA applications they’ve received, revealing that the issue of completing the application is disproportionately affecting economically disadvantaged students and their families.
“Often I talk with students and families who think they won’t qualify,” said Glendi Gaddis, Clark’s associate dean of financial aid. “They might not qualify for federal Pell grants, but they might for state. I always encourage students who need assistance to file the FAFSA so we can determine what you might be eligible for.”
At Clark, this decrease comes even as the school works to keep its enrollment at the same level as it was at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.
In her first year at Clark, Dursun was able to receive aid from both FAFSA and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, for her tuition and fees. For colleges both large and small, annual relief funding provided by CARES has been critical to providing students with financial aid during the pandemic.
Over the pandemic, Clark College received more than $14 million in CARES Act funds, directly awarded to students during a three-year period. These federal dollars were awarded in addition to traditional, federal, state and institutional aid. For the 2022-23 award year, the CARES Emergency Grant funds have been exhausted, which impacts the annual amounts of aid awarded.
“Without those dollars, I believe we would have had students who said, ‘I need to discontinue my education,’” Gaddis said. “We’re where we would plan to be according to state estimates.”
This year, as part of her FAFSA work-study package, Dursun is having to work part-time in Clark’s financial aid department. But Clark allows students to work a maximum of only 17 hours per week, which means she will never see her full work-study award package.
“Minimum wage and 17 hours a week is not enough,” Dursun said. “I’m very short on money right now.”
Cannon Atkinson, a 29-year-old who goes by they/them pronouns, is going into their second year at Clark this fall. They’re working toward an associate in fine arts with a focus in studio arts, with the goal of pursuing a career in illustration and comic book design, gaining hands-on experience working for Clark’s comic book publication The Iceberg.
Without CARES funding, Atkinson is forced to return to the workforce and limited to one class this quarter.
“It is unfortunate,” Atkinson said. “Finances have been really hard for myself and my partner in particular. Basically, I wouldn’t have been able to go last year without the financial aid I got, even with support from my partner.”
Atkinson said last year’s financial aid came in the form of CARES funding for the first two quarters, and FAFSA funding for spring. They’re waiting to hear confirmation about what FAFSA will cover this fall. In the meantime, they are searching for a job to help support themselves and their partner.
“It went from hopefully finishing this year to now taking classes when I can,” Atkinson said. “It could take a couple more years at this point, because I’m taking it much slower to make sure we’re paying all our bills. It’s a little more important.”
Pivoting to outreach
This year, Clark officials said they’re ramping up the school’s efforts to increase on-campus activities and recruiting events not only to tackle enrollment losses suffered in recent years, but to specifically attract and support low-income populations.
The 2022 Washington Legislature allocated $2.72 million ($80,000 each to 34 colleges) for colleges to contract with “community-based organizations” to assist with financial aid access and support to economically disadvantaged communities.
“Increasing financial aid knowledge and navigation is critical in low-income communities and communities of color, where the largest equity gaps in college-going and completion exist,” said Cath Busha, Clark’s dean of student engagement. “This funding allows Clark College to identify up to eight community-based organizations to work with on this initiative.”
For students who are still looking for other financial assistance, Gaddis highlighted Clark’s workforce education services department — services designed for low-income students in vocational or technical non-transfer degree programs that can assist with tuition, fees and other school-supply costs. Any funds would be in addition to federal and state programs.
Eligibility is separate from the FAFSA, and students can apply through Clark’s workforce education services portal.
As the year gets started, Dursun said, she’s looking forward to continuing her work and engaging with campus life despite her struggle with finding aid.
“I am doing a lot. Sometimes, I’m really stressed and overwhelmed; but at the end of the day, it’s something I like doing,” Dursun said. “I love doing anything and everything on campus and outside of campus related to Clark. I’d rather be doing all of this than sitting at home.”