Beginning this month, Florida College Access Network will begin profiling the innovative efforts of our partners to make college readiness, access, and success a reality for all Floridians. This week we profile, uAspire, a Miami-based ally in Goal 2025, a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of Florida residents who hold a high-quality college degree or certificate to 60% by the year 2025. 

No matter how good their grades, how strong their grit, first-generation college students need money to make higher education possible. Yet the FAFSA can frighten families. Asking probing questions about assets and accounts, the form can often feel intimidating, intended for a two-parent, single household capable of supporting  their child’s education to the age of 26.

But what do you do if you are a student whose legal guardians may be relatives other than your parents?  How do you fill out the form if your parents are undocumented? What if your family’s  income is informal and sporadic?

That’s where Miami’s uAspire comes in.“We fill a gap,” says Keith “Fletch” Fletcher, the CEO of uAspire’s Miami branch.  “There’s no one else really diving in with significant expertise on college affordability.”

Located on the campus of Miami-Dade College, uAspire began operations in South Florida last fall. The organization brings with them three decades of experience running comprehensive financial aid clinics throughout Massachusetts, where they provided one-on-one assistance to over 50,000 students and secured more than $220 million in financial aid over the last five years alone.  With a laser-like focus on financial aid, the 28-year old organization mentors students and families on what college really costs and finds them grants, scholarships and sensible loan packages.

“We know that outside of your home your college education is probably the single largest purchase that you make in your life and you often make it as a 17-year-old with limited guidance, support or understanding of the long-term impact,” says Fletcher. “Our goal is to move students to and through post-secondary educational opportunity with the least amount of debt.”

While uAspire provides comprehensive services that target students  from sixth-graders first learning about higher education to college grads grappling with loan repayments, the bulk of their focus has been on high school seniors. Through its education partnerships, uAspire is known to thousands of Florida students.  Over the fall, uAspire fanned out over Miami-Dade high schools, signing memorandums of understanding with five local principals that allowed the group to throw assemblies, exhaustively visit homerooms, and establish one-on-one relationships with students whose families need extensive help with filling out the FAFSA.

“We serve a large number of students who come from non-traditional families. There can be some cultural obstacles to filling out the FAFSA in terms of parents willing to disclose information about their financial background,” says Fletcher.  “We have students whose parents may or may not live in the country, parents who may not be documented, parents who are in prison.”

Fletcher says that uAspire fills a unique niche in the ecosystem of college readiness school groups, after-school programs and non-profits. Where other organizations may focus on test preparation, academic achievement, essay writing or college visits, uAspire’s focus is strictly financial assistance.

“We’re an insurance policy for all these other great college-going culture interventions that exist for getting kids into college. We take the financial part off the plate and allow other groups to focus on core competencies, test prep, tutoring, whatever it is they excel at,” says Fletcher.  “Our strength is that we play really nice in the sandbox with everyone else, we’re actually invited in by other community partners.”

Though they operate inside of public schools, uAspire’s mission is to supplement existing guidance counseling services, not replace them. “Guidance counselors are some of our most noble warriors in the public education system but unfortunately their large caseloads don’t allow them a lot of attention to detail,” says Fletcher.

Realizing their role, uAspire financial aid advisors take a hands-off approach when it comes to the student’s intended major or career.  “We’re not really in the business of being career counselors. What we do is help people make informed decisions that will minimize the burden of loans they may carry,” adds Fletcher.

“We talk about where they want to be and what is the most cost-effective option.  We talk about repayment options in light a career choice.  If you’re taking out loans to attend a more expensive private institution and you want to be an elementary education teacher that starts at $38,000 a year, then you are going to be paying off those loans for a long time.”

By and large, the bulk of the day-to-day work of uAspire financial advisors consists of making the FAFSA intelligible to families who have little to no experience with putting a child through college. Yet they are also uniquely qualified to tackle the thorniest of cases.  In their first year in Florida, they have already assisted a family whose legal and financial documents were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina and negotiated a complex international custody case that allowed a pair of brothers, who were previously financing their college education entirely through loans, to begin receiving substantial Pell Grants to which they were legally entitled.

That financial advice doesn’t just make getting into college easier, it makes staying there more sustainable. According to their annual report, 84% of uAspire advisees stay beyond their first year in college compared to a national average of just 69%.

Despite all the counseling they may give, uAspire advisors emphasize that college choice remains in the hands of students and their families.  “Ultimately the families are going to make the choice. We never tell them you can’t do this or go there but we do make sure they have a financial safety school on their list,” says James Henry, program director for the Miami office. “The family has to make the final choice. We just show them different ways to make their choice obtainable.”

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