City: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Title: North Louisiana Regional Coordinator, Career Compass of Louisiana
A former college admissions officer, Laura Weego now serves on the other side of the college access pipeline. She leads a team of college and career coaches at Career Compass of Louisiana who help students create plans for what happens after high school graduation. Laura cites patience as one of the important attributes in helping students and families complete the FAFSA. She spoke with the Kresge Foundation about how Career Compass coaches partner with school districts to help students complete the FAFSA in a state where filing this form is a requirement for high school graduation.
Kresge: Why is it important for your community, and in your case northern Louisiana, to boost FAFSA completion among students?
Laura: A few years ago, FAFSA completion became a graduation requirement for high school students in Louisiana. That requirement put a big burden on the schools, the administrators, and the counselors. In schools that have large senior classes, it’s a daunting task to ensure that every student completes the FAFSA. Career Compass of Louisiana was already meeting with seniors and helping them with their post-high school plans, so it was just a natural fit for us to talk about the importance of FAFSA. Now, helping with completion has become a regular part of our meetings with students.
We meet with all high school seniors at least twice in a one-on-one setting, sometimes up to four and five times throughout the year. We make sure that every student sits down with a Career Compass coach. We help them work on their college applications, complete the FAFSA, and register for the ACT or SAT, if that’s what they need. We partner with local school districts so we have each student’s class schedule. Together with the schools, we build a schedule to meet with every student during one of their free periods or elective classes.
Kresge: What inspires you to do this work every day?
Laura: I think it’s fun to help students lay out their plans and realize they can go to college, whether that’s a community or technical college, a four-year university or a professional school. Doing this work opens conversations about possibilities, and in turn, how to make those plans a reality.
Kresge: Is there a standout story about working with a student or family?
Laura: I worked with a student and his mom, who was a single mom. The student wanted to go to a local community college near home so he wouldn’t have to move away. The student’s mother was unsure if her son would be eligible for any grants or aid and was reluctant about the whole process. In the end, he did qualify for aid, including the Pell Grant. Once we reviewed the amount of his Pell Grant alongside how much it was going to cost per semester for him attend the local community college, we realized he was not going to have to take out any student loans. The family was so grateful, and I could tell that a weight had been lifted off their shoulders.
Kresge: What advice would you give to professionals around the country who are doing this work?
Laura: FAFSA completion days work well, even in the rural parts of our state. I recently attended an event where we had 120 seniors learn more about the FAFSA. The school counselor did a great job informing families about what they needed to bring to the event. In essence, the counselor told her students, “It’s a requirement, it’s mandatory. Y’all better be here.” That night, we submitted 30 FAFSAs. Working with counselors and school administrators as they work to motivate their students, parents and school communities is key.
When helping students and families complete the FAFSA, the most important thing to keep in mind is patience. For many students and parents, this is their first time seeing the application and experiencing the process. It takes a lot of patience every single time.
Kresge: Any advice for a student who is trying to begin the FAFSA completion process?
Laura: Federal Student Aid has some fantastic YouTube videos. Many explain the process and are fantastic resources. So students, watch those videos!
Additionally, area colleges and universities have financial aid officers who are often more than willing to sit down with any student and any parent. These financial aid officers are often willing to help families through the process regardless of whether they’re planning to go to that university or college. They’re all financial aid professionals, and they want FAFSAs to be completed just like we do.