Many students unaware of financial aid options

Michael Sondheimer, a communications and advertising major, fills out the 2011 FAFSA

Eric Coulter

Michael Sondheimer, a communications and advertising major, fills out the 2011 FAFSA

Chelsea Lane

A college education comes with a hefty price tag, but some students may be missing out on loans, grants and other financial opportunities.

Approximately 70 percent of students at Grand Valley State University file for federal aid each year. This number reflects a national study from Sallie Mae and Gallup, which found that 28 percent of families didn’t submit Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms last academic year. Half of these families said they weren’t aware of the FAFSA or did not think they would qualify for aid.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that students think they are not eligible for anything,” said Michelle Rhodes, GVSU director of Financial Aid. “But it never hurts to apply.”

Federal aid for students falls into three major categories: grants, loans and work-study aid. Grants are mostly available for undergraduate students, and the money the student receives does not have to be repaid. Federal loans are available for students and parents and must be repaid over an approximate span of 10 years. Federal work-study aid provides students with part-time jobs on or near campus through which they can earn federal funds distributed by the school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of the 2007-2008 school year, undergraduate students received an average of $6,600 per student from these three types of aid.

Even if students do not qualify for grants or work-study funding, which are need-based only forms of aid, almost all students who file a FAFSA request are eligible to receive federal loans, Rhodes said.

Students who may be eligible for federal aid cannot owe refunds on existing federal grants, must not be in default on any student loans and cannot have been found guilty of the sale or possession of illegal drugs while receiving federal aid, amongst other criteria.

This year, the Department of Education and IRS hope to make filing a FAFSA easier by allowing applicants to transfer 2010 tax form data from the IRS to the FAFSA form.

Though the FAFSA requires students and parents to submit the information using 2010 tax information, families can use their 2009 tax information or some other best estimate to get started and then later update the form once 2010 taxes have been filed.

The number of questions asked on the FAFSA form itself have also been greatly reduced. According to a 2009 New York Times study, an estimated 1.5 million students do not fill out the FAFSA each school year because they find the form to be too intricate or time-consuming. Accordingly, the 2010 FAFSA eliminated 25 general financial questions, as well as questions about parents’ finances and Selective Service registrations for applicants over a certain age. The new online FAFSA has dropped from 30 screens of questions to 10 screens.

The goal of the streamlining, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Education, is to increase postsecondary enrollment, particularly among low- and middle-income students through a more simplified process.

Michigan FAFSA forms must be filled out and submitted by March 1 to receive aid.

For more information about the FAFSA, including how to apply and tips for filling out the form, visit www.gvsu.edu/financialaid.

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