Life After Now.
Liz Bolsoni 00:03
Hello, and welcome to the Life After Now podcast. I'm your host, Liz Bolsoni. I'm a communication studies major at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This podcast is a place for young people like you to gather information about education, and think about what it means for your life after now, you'll be able to connect with inspirational guests who have first hand experience and expertise surrounding education in Minnesota. So today, I wanted to introduce the Dean of financial aid at Gustavus Adolphus College, Jesus Hernandez Mejia. Jesus, thank you so much for joining me today.
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 00:13
Thank you, Liz. Thank you for inviting me.
Liz Bolsoni 00:44
Yeah, thanks so much for joining us. So I wanted to ask a little icebreaker question before we start, and so our listeners can get to know you a little bit more. If you could give some advice or words of affirmation to your high school self, what would you say?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 00:58
I would say never give up. I'm a first generation student. I came from another country here to the United States, when I was 16 years old. I had to learn the language. And it wasn't an easy road for me to travel. There were a lot of times where I felt like I wanted to give up, I wanted to just quit. But then I looked at myself and the kinds of jobs that at that time, the people that I was surrounded with were doing. And that was not something that I wanted to do. And so, an advice to myself back then is just don't give up, things get better. Yes, you might have to work a little harder than everybody else or some other people. But at the end, you will be rewarded with good jobs, good experiences, good opportunities. So for me would be just don't give up. There is a brighter future ahead of you. You're only 16, 17, 18 years old, you have your whole life ahead of you. So that's what I would say to myself.
Liz Bolsoni 02:12
Awesome. Yeah, thank you for that great advice. And it's always good to get to know, you know, a little bit of people's past and experiences. So now moving into your career, the work you do now in financial aid, I Gustavus, can you give us a high-level kind of overview of how financial aid helps students pay for college?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 02:34
Yes, absolutely. So as you know, there is always a cost associated with going to school. There are very few colleges that basically you go in for free, because there are some, but there are very few colleges that I know of. And so there is always a cost associated with that. So whenever you said I want to go to school, you know that there is something that you're going to have to pay for that. And so financial aid comes in and it helps families, it helps students basically lower the cost of education a little bit. So when you look at students that their families are very poor, they don't really have the resources, financial aid comes in with some types of grants, some student loans. If you are planning to go to a private institution, they also might have scholarships that will help you reduce the cost of going to school. And the same thing for public institutions. You know, they might have some scholarships that are available for students. And they could also help you pay for school and lower down the cost of what it would originally be for you to basically pay for your career. So it helps you lower down the price on what you have to pay.
Liz Bolsoni 03:58
Could you share some common myths about the financial aid process and student loans? And what are some misconceptions that you can speak to a little bit?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 04:08
Some of the things that I encounter quite often is with community, Latin X community, and they -- some of their parents might be undocumented. And so they automatically assume that they might not qualify for financial aid because their parents are not here, USA citizens or legal residents. And that is a misconception they should apply for financial aid, they should complete the FAFSA, and see what kind of financial aid they might be eligible for. Other myths about loans is that they cost too much, that they are just way too expensive. And if we're talking about federal loans over the last, I would say at least the last three, four years, that interest rate on those loans has is been very, very low. That interest rate for the current year, that ends here, the end of this month, it's roughly about, I think it's like 2.75%, which is an extremely low. When you go, and you try to take a private loan, private loans might be a little bit higher, but that all depends on your credit history. So some of the misconception says the loans are just too much. Yes, they might be too much, but also, they might be the difference between you being able to attend school and not be able to attend school. And when you look at, for example, federal loans, federal loans are limited on the amount of money that they can give you by law. So if you are a freshman, maximum that you can get; if you're a freshman dependent, the maximum that you can get is $5,500 a year. The next year, if you move on to the next grade level, that would be about $6,500. And then on your third and fourth year, that would be $7,500. So when you add all of those student loans, it's not a whole lot. I mean, yes, it is. It is a lot of money. But if it was going to help you with your education, I think, I think it's a, it's a good thing to take out, but only take what you need. A lot of students also just because they can take the full amount, they go ahead and they take the full amount. And one thing that I would say is do you really need to take that? Pause and ask yourself, "Do you really need to take all those student loans?" And for the most part, some students yes, for some other ones, they don't, they don't. Personally, when I was in college, I only took the loans that I needed, because I didn't want to be in student loan indebtedness forever. And so I only took what I needed. Even though I had a little bit more than I could take. It wasn't, it wasn't really for me.
Liz Bolsoni 06:53
So now that we know a little bit about the loan process as well as FAFSA, can you speak specifically to the differences between state and federal forms of financial aid?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 07:04
Yes, I can. I can do that. As far as state forms, in Minnesota, we're blessed that we have something called the Minnesota DREAM Act application, where students can go and apply for financial aid, but only those students that are here undocumented. The FAFSA on the other hand, it is a federal form. And so that is for students that are USA citizens, legal residents, or that fall under one of the categories that could qualify for financial aid. The FAFSA also has some checks and balances, where they have to go in and verify the social security number of that particular student, the name. And so that FAFSA, the Department of Education sends a request to the Social Security Office to verify that info. But then they also check to make sure that the student is here, either as a USA citizen or legal resident or some other category through Homeland Security. And so there's all these checks and balances that the FAFSA does that in the case of the Minnesota DREAM Act, that doesn't happen, because we know already that situation of our students, so we know that they are undocumented, and so they don't go and do all those checks and balances. So that's the main differences between those two. There might be some other schools that also require a document called the Minnesota State Grant Eligibility Questionnaire. And that is just to determine if a student qualifies for the Minnesota State grant, which is a type of financial aid offered by the state of Minnesota through the Office of Higher Education. So again, the main differences, some of those are on the state level, they don't go through a lot of checks. And on the federal level, the FAFSA does go through different things to make sure that the student is eligible to receive federal student aid. And then at the end, once everything is done on both sides, the federal government will send the school something saying either yes, everything checks out, or no, you need to do a little more digging. The state of Minnesota through the Minnesota DREAM Act, they will just tell the schools and the student either qualifies or doesn't qualify for financial aid through the state of Minnesota. And so that's that's the end product. Both of those tell you whether you qualify for financial aid, but the types of financial aid will be different. Again, for those that apply through the Minnesota DREAM Act is through the state of Minnesota and it could be -- it could include several things. Through the FAFSA, that includes federal student loans, that includes Pell Grant, that includes federal work study, and some other types of aid that the school might have to their disposal.
Liz Bolsoni 09:52
So we know that you work in financial aid at Gustavus, which is a private college, but you also have experience going through the public university system and applying for loans and getting scholarships there. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between private and public institutions, and how financial aid differs there?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 10:11
Yes. So financial aid, public institutions and private institutions might be a little bit different depending on on the type of school that you are speaking of. At the public institutions, they have a lot of different scholarships that they are going to be offering students so that you can be enticed to come to our schools. And that will basically lower the cost of going to school. When you look also at the price between a private and a public institution, you can see that the cost seems to be very different. When you look at for example, Gustavus Adolphus College or University of St. Thomas, or St. Olaf or Carlton, you will see that the cost just seems to be a lot. But those schools do offer you a lot of different financial aid, things, scholarships that you could take advantage of that is going to be basically lowering that cost of going to those particular schools. When you look at the public institutions, some public institutions do have scholarships available for students that they can either apply or they get offered, depending on the school and how their process works. But a lot of other schools might not have a lot of funds to offer students. And so they rely on either federal funds, so Pell Grant or a state grant, to lower the cost of going to those particular schools. So I would say a big difference for some institutions might be the cost. And for some other institutions, you know, it's also that they have more scholarships. Again, it all depends on the type of school that you are referring to. I know that there are some public institutions now that there are offering extremely good financial aid for students, you know, talk about the University of Minnesota, they have some programs there that will help a lot of students. And then when you talk about Minnesota State school system, they also have some some programs that would also help students. So it's -- I'm not going to say it's apples and oranges, but it all depends on the type of school that you're looking at. And they have a different mechanism for helping you. And they also might have different types of scholarships, or maybe not have any scholarships to help you. But at the end of the day, I don't really want to pick one or the other. I'm a product of the public system, I went to MSU Mankato, and I'm happy with the education that I got there. I will not change it for anything. But I also know that the public system might not be for everybody. You know, there are some students that they might want something else. And so public or private, at the end of the day, you're still going to get the education, which in my eyes is the most important thing.
Liz Bolsoni 13:11
That's right. So something I guess that is constant between the two is often colleges have work study or student employment options. Can you talk a little bit about student employment, and how it affects financial aid?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 13:26
Yeah, so a student employment is one of those that confuses a lot of parents, it confuses a lot of students, because student employment is not really money that we're going to give you ahead of time. So when we're talking to parents, they automatically assume that if we say you're going to get student employment or work study, let's say $3,000, that they can count with that money to reduce the cost of education, and it doesn't work that way. Because work study, as the name says, you have to work to earn that money. And so some students end up working a lot. And they do end up earning those $3,000 or $4,000, whatever the amount might be. But some other students, they don't, they end up working less. They find out that college is a little bit harder than high school. And so they decided that "you know what, I don't think I'm going to work this year, I'm just going to concentrate on getting used to the classes, getting used to the student life. And so I'm not going to be doing any work study." So work study, again, it will help you, but you have to earn those funds. For our students, we say if you work anywhere from five to ten hours a week, that should be enough for you to earn your full amount of financial aid, work study or student employment, if you want to call that. So that's that's kind of what we advise our students. There are some students that might work a little bit more. The other thing to an employment or work study is that it's considered something called need-based type of financial aid. So, one I explain a little bit as to what need is and how we kind of calculate that. So need if I have someone that is, you know, somewhat well off if they have need, they might say that, yes, they have need. And I might ask someone that might not have a lot of money if they have need and they also might say, "Yes, I have need." So schools have to come up with a way as to how do we calculate need. And so the way that we calculate need is you take the cost of attendance, that includes the total cost of attendance, that is the tuition, fees, room, meals, and any other extras -- and the school should be able to tell you what the total cost of attendance is -- minus what the FAFSA says the expected family contribution is. And the difference between those two is the need. So if you have some need, you should be able to get some student employment. But you got to talk to your school because also student employment or work study, in some instances is limited. There are limited funds for that, and it's first-come, first-served, so if you wait until the last minute to apply for your FAFSA, or submit everything that is required for that school, you might not get student employment. So as soon as you can, you should be able to go in and fill out all the different things that you need. Some schools got priority deadlines when it comes to work study or student employment. So I would check with your school to make sure that you know what the priority deadline is, so that you can submit everything that they need before that day. And again, work study is wonderful, because it will give you money to spend or money to help you buy some other items. Or in some instances, it will help you to pay down a little bit of your tuition and fees, or whatever charges that school might have. So it is it is a wonderful thing to have. The other thing too with work study is most of the time they adjust their schedule to your schedule as a student. Obviously, again, it all depends on the institution. Because if you work on the public sector, outside of campus, not student employment, you will find out that a lot of times you have to adjust your schedule to what they need. With student employment it's the other way around. Because the number one job in my view, and I should be the view of everybody, for a student is to do really good in school and pass those classes. And so a work study or student employment is secondary. So we need to adjust our schedule to the needs of the students. So for the most part, that's kind of what happens with student employment.
Liz Bolsoni 17:42
So speaking of student employment, I worked on my campus as an admissions ambassador. And now I'm working in the tutoring center as a writing tutor. Can you give some examples of student employment options, and specifically Gustavus, what are some interesting options for making money on campus?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 17:58
Oh, thank you. So we also have students that are, that work in the admissions office, and they do the same job that you used to do as an ambassador or as a tour guide. Because a lot of families are interested in finding out what the campus looks like. So we hire a lot of students to go get trained. And they do tours around campus. We also have some other places like the tutoring center where you go in and you tutor students that might be having a little bit of a tough time with that particular subject. There are also groundskeeping. There is also students that help clean up classrooms. There is also the cafeteria, which is a very flexible job, because you go in, there is all different shifts that you can do. Like I was saying before, if you work any -- let's say that you want to work ten hours a week, and you want to work in the cafeteria, you might do two-hour shifts every day, Monday through Friday, and you're done when you're ten hours, right? Also IT hires students to go and help faculty staff, anybody that might be having any technical difficulties with the equipment. But the most important thing, too, is what experiences do you have? What experiences do you want to look for in a job? At the end of the day, once you graduate, and you do something, some student employment for an office, in your case tutoring, I don't know what you're planning to do with once you're done with school, but they could write a really good letter for you when you're looking for employment. And so look for those things. There's so many different jobs, not just at Gustavus, but every institution, that students could take advantage of. As to whether or not they might be interesting, well if they're interesting to you, that's all that counts, right?
Liz Bolsoni 19:48
Yeah, my dad worked in the cafeteria at Gustavus when he was there, and he definitely has some funny stories. So I wanted to move on a little bit to this thing we've talked about in previous episodes, that college has become a contentious word. And a lot of that is really centered around the cost. So can you share a little bit about the process of applying and paying for college?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 20:11
So the first step that I would say that you should do to apply for colleges, which should be a visit. That would be the first and foremost thing that I would suggest you do. Once that is done, and you for sure know that you have a list of so many schools that you want to apply to, then you can begin with the application process. Some schools are making very simple if you want to go to a community college, they just want you to apply. And once you submit your application, for the most part, you are admitted. There are some other schools that may require something a little bit different. They might require you to submit your ACT scores. They might require you to submit an essay. They might even ask you to do an interview to be admitted into that particular school. So you can go ahead and set all of that complete everything. And once you know that you are admitted to those schools, you need to complete the FAFSA. You need to complete all the financial documents that that school might be asking you for. So I would check with those schools to see what kind of documents they require. Do they just require the FAFSA, or do they require something else in addition to the FAFSA, because they might have their own institutional application that you need to complete. So once you complete all of that, and you get the financial aid offers from each school, then you sit down and you compare all those different letters that you're going to get from the different institutions. And you see, along with your parents, which institution might be better economically, You can also see which institution might be better for you academically. And then you make a decision as to whether or not that particular school, or schools, are a good fit for you. And then make your decision, because all schools are going to ask you to make a decision by a certain date, so they can prepare for the following year. And then you know, that you're going to be going to that particular school and you can start planning how much money in addition to what they're giving you, you're going to have to pay out of pocket. And so you and your parents can start planning about that, too. So that's what I would say you should do when you are trying to decide what school you want to go to.
Liz Bolsoni 22:29
So as you know, students today are facing so many challenges, and in particular, high schoolers who are looking forward to the future and applying for college have faced a lot of challenges. So considering all this, what are your hopes for life after now? What do you hope life after now looks like for students in Minnesota?
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 22:47
I would love to see that every student gets a chance of going to school. I would love for everybody to get the opportunity. And when I say school, I don't necessarily mean college, or I don't necessarily mean a four-year education, because that might not be for everybody, right? I mean, a lot of times we get caught up on all you got to go to college, it's got to be a four-year education. That's how you get ahead. But there are so many other opportunities that are out there for students that don't necessarily require a four-year education. Yes, if you get one, it is awesome. It is really, really awesome. But if you go and you become an auto mechanic, if you go in you become a plumber. If you go and become an electrician. That is still going school. That is still getting an education, rather than stay without getting anything. You can, anytime that you go to school, you kind of broaden your view on a lot of different things. And so that's kind of what I would like for all people, all students; to just get an opportunity to go to school, get an opportunity to broaden their views. Listen to other ideas, because sometimes we only want to listen to what we agree with. You kind of got to hear from everybody. Everybody has a different point of view. So I would love to see Minnesota step up, close that graduation gap between students of color and their white counterparts. That would be amazing if we could do that. And again, just providing those tools, providing those resources, providing all the need that is needed for students and parents to be able to get an opportunity to go to school and have a brighter future.
Liz Bolsoni 24:33
Again, thank you so much Jesus for sharing your extensive knowledge about the financial aid process and also giving some inspirational words and, you know, parting words for our high school listeners. So thank you.
Jesus Hernandez Mejia 24:47
Thank you Liz.
Liz Bolsoni 24:49
All right. Before we end here, I want to give a quick shout out to our listeners. Thanks so much for joining us today. This podcast is brought to you by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. I encourage you to dig into the resources mentioned in this episode, which you can find in the show notes on our website at lifeafternowpodcast.mn.gov. Don't forget to follow this podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you listen to your podcasts, so that you don't miss any future episodes. Until next time, I'm Liz Bolsoni. Stay well, stay hopeful, and stay ready because you all are the future.