Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Wunnike
Financial Aid partners with UW-Extension to deliver message of college affordability statewide
On an afternoon in early September, Chelsea Wunnike drove across Richland Center, Wisconsin from her UW-Extension office to the Richland County Fairgrounds. For the next few hours, she’d be in between the horse barns and the midway talking college savings, as part of a financial literacy program she pioneered several years ago.
Thanks to new partnerships between UW-Madison and the UW Extension that have emerged since the system restructured last summer, Wunnike’s outreach efforts now include information about financial aid programs at the university and other state schools.
The UW System opted to undergo restructuring last fall in an effort to stem falling enrollment and adapt to tight budgets at its institutions statewide. The changes have included merging two-year technical schools with four-year universities and relocating the UW-Extension and all of its services within UW-Madison.
For UW-Madison financial aid officers and extension agents alike, the restructuring is already creating natural financial aid outreach channels and connecting students around the state to the resources they need to pursue higher education.
“As we’ve been navigating the restructuring and Extension has been coming under the UW-Madison umbrella, these partnerships have become more logical,” said Greg Offerman, associate director for advising and outreach for the Office of Student Financial Aid. “From leadership on up the chain it seems more logical to get those collaborations going under more full force.”
From the fairgrounds in Richland to classrooms in Brown County, financial aid information is already becoming more and more integrated in the extension’s larger financial literacy programming.
In Richland County schools, only 45 percent of students who graduated in 2017 enrolled in four-year postsecondary education. Statewide, that number was nearly 60 percent. Richland schools serve a mixed urban and agricultural base, and the fact that many students go on to pursue agricultural training is one reason Wunnike thinks that number is not on track with the state average.
Still, Wunnike wondered if perceived financial barriers could be another factor preventing students from accessing higher education.
The families Wunnike works with are primarily on the moderate- to low-income spectrum, she said. For them, the cost of college can seem like too high a price to pay.
“It’s a doom and gloom message,” Wunnike said. “People say college is so expensive, you’re going to get buried in debt and for low to moderate income families who don’t have a lot of extra to put to savings, that is not very encouraging.”
In the 2015-’16 school year, only 56 percent of high school seniors filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid report in Wisconsin, according to a study published by Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education researchers last year.
But by using free and reduced lunch qualification as a proxy for socioeconomic status, the same study determined that schools with the highest filing rates for that service had the lowest number of FAFSA applicants.
When students fail to file the FAFSA, they forego an average of nearly $10,000 in total aid they otherwise would be eligible to receive. Students may fail to file for a number of reasons, including being discouraged by the complex application process, believing they do not need or qualify for aid, or are poorly informed about how to apply, the report said.
Both Wunnike and UW-Madison financial aid officers know that there are resources for those families, but navigating the financial aid process alone can be daunting to the point of being detering. Since the merger, they and other extension agents have been working together to demystify the financial aid process.
“We both want to make sure that all students throughout the state of Wisconsin have a connection to that financial aid resource to help navigate the higher education process,”Offerman said. “For the extension, the boundaries of their organization are the boundaries of the state, and we’re looking to do the exact same.”
Shortly after the Board of Regents approved the restructuring in July, Offerman met with area extension directors and talked through some of the nuances of UW-Madison’s aid programs, which provide free tuition to some in-state students — including new initiatives like Bucky’s Tuition Promise and Badger Promise — in the hopes that those county offices would be better equipped to incorporate that information into their existing programming.
One of the programs Wunnike is working on currently is a video series about student life at UW-Madison tailored for Richland middle schoolers. The videos aim to show students that college can be a realistic option for them, and that there are resources available for families who would otherwise consider it a financial burden.
“Our mission is community education and transformative education,” Wunnike said. “We’re looking for research to back that and the research comes from the land grant institution, from UW-Madison. We’re looking for ways to translate that research into things people can use in their everyday lives to make better decisions.”
To produce those videos from a student’s perspective, Wunnike partnered with a consumer science class in the School of Human Ecology where undergraduates are creating a product for her, as if she was their client.
The students are getting real-world experience in their field and Wunnike is receiving content that will help her open the doors to higher education for more students, according to Madelaine L’Espirance, the professor leading the course.
“This class in particular is a really great fit with the merger with the extension,” L’Espirance said. “It’s so natural because we’re both interested in the same group of people and in promoting the same kind of financial education and literacy for meeting more of those long term financial goals.”
Wunnike is one of several extension agents L’Espirance is partnering with this semester. In addition to the collaboration with Richland County, her students are working with extension offices in Elkhorn and Fond du Lac.
L’Espirance said she doesn’t know if she would have made connections with those extension offices if the system hadn’t restructured.
While there hasn’t been a coordinated financial aid outreach effort statewide yet, partnerships like this one could be indicators of the types of programming to come.
The Office of Financial Aid is also taking advantage of its new proximity to the extension to work directly with agencies and meet their specific, regional needs. When the Brown County office requested a financial aid workshop for high schoolers, he helped them develop their programming.
“Like any partner we work with, we of course want to be meeting their need and to provide something useful to them in terms of a service, and really, that’s what it will come down to for us — having that service and sharing that knowledge,” Offerman said. “We want to help students in the state of Wisconsin navigate the higher education process no matter where they want to go to school.”