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Students Search for Financial Aid

Career counselors and financial aid champions help students find resources

FAFSA. Fastweb. TAG. FSF. It’s enough to make one's head spin, and as a result many college bound students don’t get the financial aid that they need. The information is there, students just need a help in figuring out how to get it.

That is why Fairfax County employs career specialists like Betsy Galeota and Amy Ferguson. That is also why a group of people have gotten together and founded the Fairfax Scholarship Fund (FSF). It is led by former school board member, Christian N. Braunlich, who is currently serving as executive director.

Incorporated last July, FSF was awarded a $90,000/two-year grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The purpose of the organization is to expand a College Access program in Fairfax County. While some of the money will be used to award scholarships to students, most of the money will be used to hire and train FSF “Financial Aid Champions.” These aides will be placed initially in seven Fairfax County high schools that have been identified as having a high percentage of low income families, a high percentage of Limited English Proficient families and a low percentage of students with post-secondary educational plans. They will give students assistance in completing the forms and help them to find other sources of financial aid.

THEY WILL WORK with students like Manual McCoy. A senior at MVHS, he has been accepted at George Mason University. He and E.J. Dawson, a junior at MVHS, stopped in the Career Center at Mount Vernon last week. McCoy said that he’s been coming here for information since he was a sophomore. When asked if he had completed his FAFSA, he said that he had missed the training session that was held earlier at Bryant, and was not able to complete it on his own.

This is not surprising; the same time that he was in the Career Center, Sharon Poehler was there as well. She was trying to enter information for the FAFSA for the fifth time. She kept trying to enter it at home over her dial-up line, and it kept timing out and dropping her offline.

This is a form that every student is told that they should complete. FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a clearinghouse of sorts for schools and other organizations. Students complete the form — either on-line or paper version) — and submit it. Based on the information provided on the form, an individual financial aid package is prepared for each student. It is likely to include funds from the federal student aid programs. These programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Education and provide over $33 billion a year to students attending post-secondary schools. Not all schools participate in all federal student aid programs, but the high school guidance counselor can help students determine if the school they want to go to, participate in the federal programs they are interested in.

To file a FAFSA, students must be: a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen; registered with Selective Service (see www.sss.gov for more information); attending a participating school; working toward a degree or certificate; and making satisfactory academic progress.

Students cannot owe a refund on a federal grant or be in default on a federal education loan. They must have the financial need (except for unsubsidized Stafford Loans) and cannot have any drug convictions.

MARGARET J. STASIKOWSKI, who is filling in for Amy Ferguson, has been trying to help students and parents complete their FAFSA forms. It is already late; the initial filing started at the beginning of this year and monies have already started to be disseminated. Stasikowski suggests that students apply as early as possible

“The quicker you complete it, the more money that is available — there is a limited pot of money,” Stasikowski said. “It’s a combination of work study programs, loans and scholarships. Different schools have different plans.”

She also helps students wade through the piles of books and brochures that are kept at the Career Center. She directs them to sites like www.Fastweb.com. This scholarship search service can help students choose a college, pay for college and find jobs during and after college.

The site, which has been used by more than 21 million students since its launch in 1995, lets students create a personalized profile that can be matched against an database of colleges and scholarships. The on-line scholarship matching service will search a database with over 600,000 scholarships totaling more than $1 billion. FastWeb also notifies students when new scholarships are added and application deadlines are approaching.

Stasikowski also tells students about the Fairfax County Web site. This site, http://www.fcps.edu/ssseapps/scholarshipdb/about.cfm, contains information about scholarships submitted to high school career centers in Fairfax County Public Schools. This resource can be used as part of a student’s financial aid planning. Students can take advantage of the following options offered by the site:

* Browse the Database by Specific Criteria — this provides a list of criteria which links to lists of scholarships matching the criteria;

* Currently Active Scholarship — offers a list of scholarships which are currently available in the high school career centers;

* Search the Scholarship Database — offers an opportunity to search by grade level then from a list of possible scholarship criteria.;

* Alphabetic List of Scholarships — provides a list in alphabetical order of all scholarships in the database;

* Links to Additional Information — provides a listing of resources to assist with financial planning.

Applications for scholarships on this site are provided through a Web link to the sponsoring organization or are linked to a PDF file which may be downloaded and printed.

“Some students take advantage of what we have; I wish more did,” Stasikowski said.

GALEOTA HAS SEVERAL success stories, like the $25,000 scholarship she helped a student find last year; it was granted by Krispy Kreme Doughnuts because the student’s mother worked there.

She is hoping that they’ll have even more success stories now that the Fairfax Scholarship Foundation is bringing people into the schools to work with students. Already in place at West Potomac, Dale Schmidt, a Financial Aid Champion, will work one-on-one with the students.

He will make sure that students know about things like the TAG (Tuition Assistance Grant). This is a Commonwealth of Virginia program which provides annual grants to Virginia residents who are full-time students at eligible private colleges and universities in Virginia. The estimated TAG award for the 2004-2005 academic year is $2,500 for undergraduate students and $1,900 for graduate students. This means that students at the undergraduate level could receive approximately $10,000 over four years. Bona fide residents of Virginia who are full-time undergraduate or graduate students enrolled at eligible private colleges in Virginia are eligible for TAG.

“There are a lot of scholarships out there; the goal is to help people find them,” Schmidt said.

He also believes that the key is to start early.

“This is the beginning of their future; they don’t realize how quickly those four years go,” Schmidt said.

He will spend the rest of the school year organizing for next year and working with students in the afternoon.

“This is a wonderful gift to the high schools,” Galeota said.

While a Financial Aid Champion has not yet been designated for Mount Vernon High School, Braunlich has committed to getting somebody other there to help McCoy and other students.

IN ADDITION to working at the schools, the Financial Aid Champions will help out at workshops. Earlier this year, the scholarship fund conducted a “Super Saturday” program at Bryant Adult and Alternative High School. The program helped, low-income, limited English proficient parents and students complete the financial aid applications on-line. Braunlich said that more than 100 people attended, and estimates that they completed about 50 FAFSA forms. More of these workshops will be held next year to assist even more people.

Other organizations, such The Sallie Mae Fund, hold workshops throughout the year as well. Their workshop, titled “Paying for College,” has been held in several locations around the county. This free workshop talks about the various types of financial aid available to college students and the resources that are available to help families prepare for college admissions process. U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) has been the honorary chair for these workshops.

"There is a rhyme, rhythm and method to paying for college," Davis said. "Choosing a college and determining how to pay for it is often overwhelming for students and their parents. Research has shown that families are mystified by the financial aid process and are unaware of billions of dollars available in the form of grants, scholarships and low-cost education loans. The first step to receive these financial aid dollars is completing the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] — a must-do in obtaining financial aid. I am committed to educating my constituents through a program called 'Paying for College,' designed for parents and students to better understand college financial aid opportunities."