NAVIGATING THE FINANCIAL AID SYSTEM IN THE COMMUNITY COLLEGE: THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF STUDENTS FORMERLY IN FOSTER CARE
Solemsaas, Rachel Herrera
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For many low-income and disadvantaged students formerly in foster care, community colleges are the main post-secondary educational pathway to socioeconomic opportunities. However, students formerly in foster care face many barriers in accessing college as well as actually succeeding in achieving a college degree. Although considerable efforts have been made to expand opportunities for foster youth to earn college degrees, low educational achievement and attainment continue to characterize this population. This qualitative study represents the stories of 12 former foster youth and their collective experience relating to what it is like to be a former foster youth navigating the financial aid system. The purpose of this phenomenological study was to understand the process of financial aid as seen through the lived experiences of former foster youth. This study presents the opportunities and barriers faced by these individuals in accessing financial aid; as such, it provided a community of students a voice that could help improve policies and practices towards the process of awarding and coordinating financial aid to students formerly in foster care. The themes and subthemes that emerged from this study constitute three main categories: accessing financial aid benefits; timeliness of financial aid awards; and sufficiency of financial aid benefits. The participants in this study experienced difficulty in accessing their financial aid benefits resulting from the emerging themes that include their lack of knowledge and awareness of accessing appropriate financial aid opportunities as well as their attempt to overcome the complexity of the financial aid process. The poor timing of financial aid awards for the participants emerged from themes on the delays in knowing about their aid and in receiving their financial aid funds. The emerging themes that support whether the participants of this study have sufficient financial aid include their ability to manage the challenging expenses of attending college and the ways they supplemented their financial aid awards.