As a Southwestern College peer advisor, Andres Nuñez knows one of the questions new Southwestern College students ask the most: “How am I going to pay for this?”
It’s a question he asked himself when he first applied two years ago. Through Southwestern College’s financial aid department, state and federal aid and support staff, he’s never had to worry about that since. Part of that is thanks to the California College Promise Grant (formerly known as the Board of Governor’s Fee Waiver), a program that has completely waived his tuition fees his entire time at Southwestern College.
“When I’m helping students apply to Southwestern College, I tell them, this will cut your tuition down to zero, you just have to pay a few other fees,” he said. “They hear that and their eyes glow up and widen.”
Within the past few years, Southwestern College’s financial aid office has made many changes to help students like Nuñez, and he’s just one of the thousands of students benefiting from them. These structural changes began with the financial aid staff setting new goals that were driven by student perspective and conversation.
“One of the guiding questions that drove these changes was, “Is there a better way to serve students?’” said Patricia Larkin, director of financial aid.
Because of these changes, the number of students who receive financial aid has increased 30 percent to a total of $44 million distributed aid through grants, loans, scholarships and work-study. This makes Southwestern College the highest disburser of financial aid than any other community college in the entire San Diego region.
The office receives and processes more than 21,000 applications a year. In August 2015, processing time was averaging six to eight weeks. Today, the staff has cut down the processing time to about one week. Of all those students processed, more than 75 percent of them qualify for the California College Promise Grant – waiving their entire tuition.
Nuñez, a psychology major who will soon transfer to a four-year university, said he’s never had to worry about how he’s going to pay for school at Southwestern College.
“If it wasn’t for financial aid at Southwestern College, I wouldn’t have been able to afford college,” Nuñez said. “I would’ve had to have a full-time job right of high school. Financial aid helped me become a student and not spend all my time working.”
The financial aid department also hosts FAFSA Fridays each semester where students can get walk-in help from a financial aid specialist to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the California College Promise Grant or the California Dream Act to help students maximize their aid.
“There’s no penalty to applying for financial aid, it’s completely free to file,” Nuñez said. “I tell other students to just apply and see what you get. There’s always a way to succeed.”