When Demonte “Tray” Thompson was approaching high school graduation in 2010, he already had started learning lessons about the importance of making sound economic decisions.
His family had little disposable income, so if he wanted to have money for high school activities like the prom, he had to earn it by working at a fast food restaurant.
So he was ahead of most incoming freshmen when it came time to look ahead to college and how to pay for it. Considering various universities, he kept coming back to California State University, Northridge. He wanted to major in finance, so the CSUN David Nazarian College of Business and Economics was quite attractive. He also looked at the tuition cost, which was significantly lower than other schools.
Yet Demonte and his twin brother, Demontea, knew they were going to need more help to afford college without incurring a lot of debt. So they reached out to CSUN’s Financial Aid office, where they found out about Pell Grants.
Pell Grants are government funds awarded to students based on financial need. The grants take into account the institution’s tuition costs, as well as other ancillary factors. When the Thompson twins found out that they qualified for this aid, that sealed their respective decisions to come to CSUN.
“It relates to needing the aid to figure out which university I would attend, as well as whether I’d be able to afford going to college,” Demonte said. “Without receiving the right amount of financial aid, it could affect our decisions to go to college at all or going to a community college.”
During the 2013-14 school year, 18,107 CSUN students received a cumulative $79,219,274 in Pell Grants. That was the most by far in the state of California, nearly $10 million ahead of the second university on the list (California State University, Long Beach). Nationally, CSUN was third in total Pell Grant money awarded at public universities, behind only Penn State and Arizona State. The fact that nearly 50 percent of CSUN’s student body receives some level of government aid is a testament to the situations of the people who make up the student body.
“High need. We bring in kids who are this region,” said William Watkins ’74 (Urban Studies), CSUN vice president of student affairs and dean of students. “We have made a decision here at CSUN to not become exclusive in ways that might cause some kids from that socioeconomic strata to not be here. Part of the demographic reality of our campus is that we draw from the region in a very authentic way. We don’t have a whole lot of standards that we keep some in larger percentage than others from being enrolled. If we’re enrolling kids from the community here — and if we’re attractive to them and they believe that they can achieve success here — to be able to offer them the aid that makes that possible is huge.
“The Pell Grant is a gauge for the economic status of your student body. It reflects, number one, who we have here, but also demonstrates the capacity of the staff in our financial aid department and all the other supporting cast that assists students in getting those financial aid applications in and processed on time — and then delivering that aid to them at a time when they need it to pay their fees and their other obligations in a timely manner.”
Lili Vidal has been helping students like Thompson reach for their dreams of a better future for more than two decades. As CSUN’s director of financial aid and scholarships, Vidal has learned over the years how important support in the form of Pell Grants can make the difference between going to college and not for a great number of CSUN students.
“It’s critical for them,” Vidal said. “They really can’t come to school. Students who are eligible for Pell Grants, they don’t have additional family resources. They don’t really have another place to turn.”
Vidal pointed out that along with the aid must come a fair amount of education. Many students receiving this financial aid are first-time college students, so there is no background knowledge in what college costs and what resources are available to help pay for it. In many cases, the parents are receiving the financial education along with their children, and for many Latino families that learning is done in Spanish as well as English.
“It’s not just the money, it’s the education we have to deliver to them,” Vidal said. “Their parents didn’t go to college. They don’t understand what this money is for. They could get a refund check for $5,000 that could be the income for a family for a year.”
The education brings with it a real-world lesson about the responsibilities that come with the aid. These students must maintain an academic standard that shows passing grades and consistent progress toward a degree. If their academic performance lags below standards, the reality that the support could go away is quite sobering for many first-time college students. This requires maturity early on to make the most of this opportunity. In some instances, this is a hard lesson.
“They don’t really understand the responsibility that comes with that opportunity,” Vidal said. “They do need to have discipline — academic discipline, financial discipline, social discipline. They’re responsible for themselves in a lot of ways.”
CSUN offers workshops on money management to help students with budgeting their financial aid money. There have been past instances when students received aid, but spent it only partially on their education — leaving them scrounging to make ends meet until the end of the semester.
“This financial aid is important to them,” Vidal said. “It’s important to their family, and it’s important to their community.”
Demonte eventually went to work for Vidal in the financial aid office. He’s been able to help other students facing a similar situation to his own. When he finishes his undergraduate degree in December (he’s already looking ahead toward graduate school), it will be clear how aid like the Pell Grant has helped him.
“It’s made an amazing difference,” Demonte said. “This grant and other financial aid I received let me know that I do have a cushion to help me with school. I won’t have to work as much so I can focus on my education.
“It has propelled me. Not only is my major finance, but I’m at a university that has a good business school. Even when considering pursuing an MBA, I know I have the support of faculty and staff.”
For Vidal, the reward is in knowing the difference she’s making in helping these students elevate themselves to earn a degree that can boost their future careers.
“I do get students coming back to tell me they wouldn’t be where they are without our help,” Vidal said. “We believe in them.”
Having someone believe in them gives many students the confidence to persevere through the hard work that lies ahead during their college years. But just knowing that a college education is possible because of aid like Pell Grants and people like Vidal is often the start that many need on the road to success.
“I have a tremendous respect and regard for the work that’s done through financial aid,” Watkins said. “When our recruiters go out, they can say affirmatively to kids that if you prepare yourself to come to college, we have the resources to make that possible. That’s huge.”