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FUEL Education helps low-income families save for college

Martin Desmarais
FUEL Education helps low-income families save for college
(L-R): Yiming Shuang, FUEL Education senior manager of program operations; Ouma Autar family; and Melissa Martins, coordinator of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. The Neighborhood House Charter School is one of the partners for FUEL, which helps families save for college and apply for financial aid.

Celeste Hayden (middle) and her two daughters took part in the FUEL Education program at the Boston Public School Parent University in Boston.

Families United in Educational Leadership (FUEL) is batting 100 percent for its graduating class of 2013. All 56 recently graduated high school seniors involved in the nonprofit program, which helps low-income families establish a savings plan for college and also navigate the financial aid process, are registered to attend college this fall.

The families — from Boston, Lynn and Chelsea — each saved an average of $1,200 toward their childrens’ costs for college. In total, the families saved $67,000 and earned more than $40,000 in private and academic scholarships. In addition, FUEL has a matching program, working with partners, which can provide families as much as a dollar-for-dollar match of money saved. In other words, if a family saves $1,200 for college through FUEL they could get as much as $1,200 more.

While the cost of college continues to skyrocket, for low-income families $1,200 can make a big difference, according to FUEL Executive Director Gene Miller. However, Miller emphasizes that the biggest benefit of FUEL is that through the program the families learned how to apply for and get the most help they can out of the college financial aid process, which is a notoriously tricky one.

“We incentivize savings,” Miller said. “The families are required to save and learn. … In general we offer a contract with the family saying if you save a certain amount of money we are going to either match it or provide some sort of incentive.

“Whatever we offer to save in any of these processes is what attracts people to the program, but when families are exiting the program they are proud of the savings, saying, ‘Wow, this is the first time we have ever saved,’” Miller added. “The most important part is the information, because there is this buy-in process that comes from saving and seeing your interest build up and getting into that asset-building model. … What happens is that most of our families get very attractive financial aid packages when they graduate from the program.”

For example, 17 of the students from the class of 2013 will be attending Salem State University this fall and six of those are part of the Compact Scholarship agreement with FUEL, which gives them either a full or partial scholarship, meaning they will graduate with little or no debt. FUEL’s Compact Scholarship program also works with UMass Boston and Bunker Hill Community College.

Miller said that because the families that take part in FUEL are low-income families, there is a lot of financial aid available and the money saved helps cover the financial gap that may exist between the financial aid received and the cost of the school.

One of FUEL’s main educational goals is to help families successfully complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and also determine the expected family contribution (EFC) for college. The EFC is a critical factor for financial aid because this number is what will not be covered by financial aid and is what the savings are needed for.

While middle-income families often have to walk a tightrope between financial aid, savings and EFC, Miller says that with low-income families the EFC is often zero and the savings and contributions from the FUEL program have no real impact on financial aid.

“Because of the economic status of our families, we don’t get into that kind of issue,” Miller said. “The savings are not that big a number to move the expected family contribution. … When you are very low income you tend to have very significant opportunities for financial aid based on FAFSA.

“The $1,200 saved for most of our families will not impact EFC in a measurable way,” Miller added.

In fact, the FUEL program released numbers that say 50 percent of the families sending students to college this year reported an EFC of $0 to $5,000 for their children’s first year of college.

In addition, the FUEL program is getting students off to college and keeping them there at higher rate than Boston Public Schools. Since 2009, when FUEL was started, 100 students have graduated from the program and gone on to college. 89 percent of them stayed in college past their first year, which compares to a rate of only 61 percent for all Boston Public School students who enrolled in college, according to a recent study.

Founded by Robert Hildreth, a banker and social entrepreneur, FUEL is headquartered in Boston and has sites in Boston, Chelsea and Lynn. All told, $375,000 has been saved so far by families to support over 600 students for college.

The 56 students that graduated from the FUEL program this year, aside from those attending Salem State, will be attending schools such as Boston University, Howard University, Northeastern University, UMass Amherst and other state and local colleges.

“FUEL definitely made a difference in my life while I was in high school,” said Jasmin Matos, a third-year student at Northeastern who was part of FUEL while she attended high school in Lynn. “They helped my parents, who helped me through the application process. [Because of FUEL] my parents were much more prepared. They didn’t go to college so without FUEL they were not going to be able to put me through the process.”

In fact, Matos’ older sister did graduate from high school and go off to a two-year college, but she did not take part in FUEL and struggled to make it happen. “Her process was a lot more difficult. She thinks that she would have had more opportunities [if she was part of FUEL],” Matos said. “My parents were not that involved in her process, they did not know that much about the deadlines or anything about the process. My sister did it all on her own.”

Jasmin Matos’ mother Illuminada Matos agrees.

“There was a big difference because with my first daughter I didn’t have the knowledge to support her through the college application process. With Jasmin, I would go every month to a parent meeting and would learn about the college application process and what I could do to support her,” she said. “FUEL helped me learn the importance of saving money and putting aside funds for the education of my daughters. The way I save money has changed.”

Illuminada Matos also said that FUEL has given her family the confidence that affording college is possible. “I think the best thing is for the kids to have good grades and for parents to be able to support them financially. I think that the price of going to college is high. It is expensive but it is worth it because in the end the student and the student’s family see the difference in lifestyle,” she said.

She also pointed out that she is very happy to see Jasmin successful and happy at Northeastern. “I am very proud of Jasmin. I am happy that she is working to accomplish her dreams,” she said. “I am thankful of the opportunity she has been given and that she is working hard and taking advantage of it.”

According to Jasmin Matos, who majors in communications and minors in business administration and law and public policy, she is thrilled to get the opportunity to attend a college like Northeastern.

“I absolutely love Northeastern,” she said. “I wake up every day in my dorm and I still can’t believe I go to Northeastern and I still can’t believe I am a college student.”

Matos has also begun to work some with FUEL and other high school students to help them fulfill their college dreams as she has done. She credits the program for supporting the other students’ dreams, just as it did for her.

“They are more poised to go to college than the other students who are not getting the same help. They are more aware of what is going on and they know what they have to do to go to college,” she said. “They are nervous but they are excited for the process.”