Student start-up helps college applicants with financial aid

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High school students at various New York City schools can now have extra guidance on the daunting process of applying for financial aid for college thanks to Knowledge Access Initiative. KAI, a startup founded by CAS senior Faria Mardhani and CAS junior Kathleen McClure, provides intensive financial aid workshops, one-on-one mentoring and online resources for high school students applying to college.

“We learned throughout the process of meeting with college counselors and students that students don’t get a lot of face-to-face time with their college counselors, and they need supplemental help applying for financial aid,” Mardhani said. “That’s why we decided to specialize in financial aid — it’s the primary barrier to attending college for low-income students.”

The financial aid workshops take into account the school’s student-to-counselor ratio, student-to-teacher ratio, FAFSA completion rates and the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

“At every school we’ve worked in, there have been amazing, highly dedicated counselors who are involved, passionate and truly care about their students,” McClure said. “It’s simply that there is only one of them and hundreds of students. It’s impossible for them to provide individualized guidance.”

While many organizations tackle education inequality and college access, KAI looks at specific, tangible solutions to the problems that many low-income students face.

CAS freshman Ryan Thomas, KAI’s director of communications, said KAI has witnessed the problem up close.

“We can see that the need is there,” Thomas said. “When we’ve gone into these schools and spoken with college counselors and their students, we find that students need supplementary assistance in completing their applications.”

KAI holds workshops during the school day, providing one-on-one lessons on filling out financial aid and scholarship forms as well as interactive workshops. One of KAI’s goals is to avoid being self-selecting, so students from all backgrounds have access to the necessary information.

“During FAFSA, TAP and scholarship completion days, we actually sit down with each student and parent and provide one to two hours of individualized guidance,” Mardhani said. “That’s one of the reasons we chose to focus solely on financial aid. There are so many applications associated with it even beyond the FAFSA and TAP, like the scholarships that are specific to [New York City] and low-income students, that we’re trying to specialize in also.”

KAI is one of two finalists in NYU’s Reynold’s Change Maker Challenge, a competition that helps NYU students develop their programs to bring about sustainable and social change. The grand prize winner will be announced in late April.

CAS junior Srishti Nath, a workshop leader and evaluation/program analyst, said the Change Maker Challenge works closely with the participants.

“One of the really great things about the [Change Maker Challenge] is they don’t just give you materials and expect great results, they nurture you,” Nath said. “It’s very welcoming and people genuinely want others to succeed.”

Since NYU is an expensive university, many of the KAI leaders have personal reasons for helping other students obtain financial aid.

“I wanted to join as a student whose financial aid makes it possible to attend such a prestigious institution,” Thomas said. “I think it’s really important that we use the skills and knowledge we have from our own experiences to help students find the resources that will make college accessible.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 14 print edition. Bailey Evans is a staff writer. Email her at features@nyunews.com. 

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