By Beth Pinsker
NEW YORK – What does a pug looking at a computer have to do with the Oct. 1 start date for parents and students to fill out the federal financial aid form known as the FAFSA?
It is all about spreading the word about the new start, changed from Jan 1. Social media memes like “FAFSA in October? #PUGYEAH”are just part of the messaging to high school seniors, college students and parents.
The “get the word out” efforts come from many directions, said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).
Along with national organizations like Draeger’s and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the effort is joined by the U.S. Department of Education, student loan lenders like Sallie Mae, plus college financial aid offices and high school guidance counselors across the country.
The earlier start is intended to help families integrate the financial aid process with college choice, so that they will know how much they will be expected to pay before finalizing applications.
The goal is to make the filing process easier, because families need to provide detailed tax and asset information. The numbers get crunched to produce a dollar figure called the “expected family contribution,” which colleges use to figure out a student’s financial aid package.
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. When parents used to file the form in January, they had to estimate their upcoming taxes that were due on April 15. This caused complications for people who had not yet received required documents like their annual W-2 wage and tax statement.
The end dates for filing the FAFSA vary by state – in many states it is June 30 of the following year. Experts advise filing as early as possible, because aid dollars usually are allotted on a “first come, first served” basis.
Help is available
About 15 percent of families do not complete the FAFSA in any given year, according to Sallie Mae. The No. 1 reason: they do not think they will qualify for aid. In addition, many respondents to Sallie Mae’s surveys say the FAFSA form is hard to fill out. They also often miss the deadline or forget.
Filling out the form has benefits, even for those who do not think they will qualify for aid, notes David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy for NACAC. A student could qualify for merit scholarships or other financial grants from an institution, for instance, or simply qualify for a work-study job.
With all the promotions surrounding the pushed-up FAFSA timeline this year, it will be harder for families to forget. And there is plenty of help available, so it should be easier to complete the paperwork, too.
Last year, Houston’s school district was able to boost FAFSA completion by about 10 percent, thanks to a citywide effort by a special team called College Success. Half of the city’s students filled out the form.
This year, the director of Houston’s College Success, Jeremy Tatum, is hoping for even more progress among roughly 11,000 high school seniors. Students in this large urban district span all incomes, with a disproportionate amount of undocumented students, Tatum said.
Tatum will spend this fall conducting FAFSA “road shows,” where he takes his staff of about 45, plus many volunteers, to one school at a time.
“We do text and postcards. We put it on social media,” he said. Then they show up on a date and stay from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., helping families to complete the forms. There is food, raffled scholarships and even a medical bus giving out free shots.
Tears and stress
At Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, college counselor Diane Campbell deals with a much smaller base of about 450 seniors.
That translates into much more face time with crying parents and students. “I had a mom in my office yesterday in tears,” said Campbell. “I see a lot of parents stressed, and asking for meetings with me and not with their students, so they can talk openly about their stresses as parents.”
And then the kids come in. “I have one student who was daily in tears. She said, ‘How do I pay for this? How do I fill this out?’ Her mom just shut her down completely, because college is too expensive,” Campbell added.
Happily, things are a little less fraught on the college level, where families have already been through the exercise at least one time and students are settled at a school already.
At Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Maureen “Mo” Amos, the director of the financial aid office, has software that can track FAFSA completion among her enrolled students.
While Amos and her team are busy fanning out to high schools, much of the campus informational campaign has been taken over by student groups. Instead of tears, there will be FAFSA poetry slams, pumpkin carving and an Octoberfest event in the cafeterias.