December 12, 2021
Earlier this year, Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey made a move it had considered but never pulled off for lack of money. Its students, like those at most community colleges, are up against a host of life challenges, among them food and housing. They usually need more hands-on help than those at four-year schools.
Some of the queries were straightforward: how to enroll, the price of tuition, how to register for classes. Others weren’t: I lost my job, so my income last year doesn’t reflect what I’m making this year; will I lose financial aid? What if I can’t pay my tuition balance right away? So starting in March, Raritan used part of the $25 million it had received from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which Congress passed as part of broader pandemic aid, to hire two financial coaches and set up an eight-person call center to address the fire hose of questions pouring in from current and prospective students.
Ania Gonzalez, 51, had long wanted a college degree but figured she couldn’t afford it, and in any case had had trouble navigating the paperwork. A naturalized citizen who immigrated from Costa Rica, she has a GED certificate and speaks English well, but her written and computer skills are limited.
After 20 years as a house cleaner, she’d gotten better work as a packaging operator at local manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies, but kept losing jobs because she had trouble filling out the required forms. She’d tried once to enroll at Raritan but gave up after she couldn’t figure out the application.
In May she decided to try again. This time she was directed to Antoinette Bryant, one of the newly hired financial coaches. Bryant helped her through the application process, sitting beside her as she filled out forms. Now Gonzalez is enrolled in the school’s English as a Second Language program, after which she wants to get a health or science degree.