UAFS students tackle awareness gap with financial aid, student debt

by Aric Mitchell (aric.mitchell@gmail.com) 377 views 

Jennifer Edwards (left) Christina Seaton talk about their efforts to raise awareness about financing options for college tuition.

When it comes to student debt and the resources available to combat it, there is an undeniable awareness gap.

That was a key takeaway from a recent presentation by students in the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) College of Business. Presenting their year-end project in the Community Leadership program taught by instructors Fred Williams and Rusty Myers, a five-member group consisting of Jennifer Edwards, Danielle Emery, Anthony Mills, Christina Seaton, and Glenda Wise, revealed to attendees at the year-end presentations on Monday (May 8) students were leaving an estimated $2.7 billion on the table nationally as of 2015. And that is in spite of having on-campus resources available to address issues.

“That is not to say the Financial Aid office and UAFS Scholarship Foundation are not doing a good job of addressing the issue,” Seaton said. “But many students simply do not know what questions to ask or even where to start the process of looking for alternative means of paying for college.”

On April 27, the student group took action by coordinating and hosting the campus’s first ever Financial Resource Fair. The three-hour program took around three weeks of planning to pull off starting on March 6 and continuing through table and tent preparation on April 24.

“We had a little over 130 college students, incoming students, and parents attend the event,” the group wrote in their final report, adding the project “is sustainable and the UAFS Rotaract Club will be taking it over to grow the event.”

The group continued: “Projects such as this will help with the student loan epidemic this country is experiencing as well as keep students in school to complete their degrees, ultimately increasing their lifelong career opportunities and improve the community’s overall economic condition.”

Feedback received from attendees was mostly positive, Seaton said, with 88% of respondents stating the content was either “very” or “extremely” helpful, while 76% said they were likely to refer the fair to others and 84% were either “very” or “extremely” likely to participate in the future.

To pull it off, the students engaged and brought in 15 strategic partners to spread the word and host the event, including the Arkansas Academic Challenge, Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, Western Arkansas Employment Development Agency (WAEDA), UAFS Financial Aid, UAFS VA, UAFS Academic Success Center, UAFS Housing, TEC Staffing, Zonta Club of Fort Smith, First National Bank of Fort Smith, UAFS Scholarship Hub, Sweet Bay, Taco Bell, and the UAFS College of Business.

“For the first event like this, we feel it was of good quality with room for improvement,” said Edwards, adding that “we need to do a better job of marketing and communicating with our resource representatives.” Despite that, “This first event did reach our initial goal of bringing awareness to existing students about available financial resources.”

The latest national tally from Student Loan Hero places the estimated total student debt at $1.28 trillion with the average graduate owing approximately $37,000.

Other projects presented on Monday centered on cyber bullying awareness, a citywide cooking program, a live music event targeting Southside High School students, and a plan to boost the use of Fort Smith’s trails system.

Myers said the course is “unusual” in that it gives the students “no textbook, no lecture, and no test.”

“It’s about them selecting a community project they feel strongly and hopefully passionately about and then them deciding how they might pursue that,” Myers said, adding the goal is to show “some level of accomplishment in a three-month period.”

“We tell them to do the best they can, and if they can’t at least implement something, they can leave a good blueprint for someone else. And we’re pleased to say that over the course of the last six years of this class, a number of the projects the student teams have picked out have come to fruition,” Myers said.

“They’re a diverse bunch of students,” Williams added. “They’re outstanding people and will make outstanding contributors to the community and outstanding employees.”

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