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30 Minutes, Thousands of Dollars

Experts to help families fill out FAFSA forms that may make college possible.

Each year, it costs more to go to college. “College costs are rising much more rapidly than other goods and services,” according to an annual study published by the College Board. In five years, tuition and fees have risen 35 percent.

Chris Braunlich has noticed another trend. “Increasingly,” says the director of College Access Fairfax, “I’m finding scholarships that go unclaimed.”

“People aren’t applying for them because they don’t know about them, or it’s too difficult to apply for them or any number of reasons.”

Braunlich tries to find takers for those scholarships. His organization hires nine “financial aid champions” to work part time in Fairfax County Public high schools helping seniors find financial aid. This often entails searching through an exotic array of scholarships, but it also means helping complete the most fundamental, and one of the most intimidating, applications of all.

The Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the starting point for anyone who is serious about earning financial aid. “If you hope for any need-based aid – scholarships, government assistance or merit-based aid – you are required to fill out the form,” Braunlich said. The FAFSA uses a formula to analyzes income, then calculate the government’s estimate of a reasonable contribution the family can afford to make towards a student’s college education. It can be anything from the full tuition to practically nothing.

“It’s the key, really, to the beginning of financial aid discussions,” said Dale Schmidt, West Potomac’s financial aid champion. It not only makes students eligible for federal grants and loans, most public and private universities also require it for their financial aid packages.

But Braunlich said the ponderous online document, “more complicated than a 1040 [tax form],” with hundreds of blank bubbles that need to be filled, can dissuade families from even beginning the process. “Parents were folding it up and putting it away. They weren’t doing it.”

“But those are the kids who are probably most eligible.”

ON TWO UPCOMING SATURDAYS, students and parents in the Mount Vernon area will have a chance to seek out help to complete the FAFSA. College Access Fairfax will be hosting “Super Saturdays” staffed with its scholarship experts at West Potomac High School on Jan. 20 and at Mount Vernon High School on Feb. 10. There will be speakers of Spanish and other languages at both events.

If applicants come with all their information, they should be able to fill out the form in about 30 minutes, said Schmidt.

But Paula Harmata, the financial aid champion at Mount Vernon High School, said that even if they have only a fraction of this information, it’s still worthwhile to attend. “Parents, if you have not done your 2006 taxes, please still attend this workshop. You can enter your 2005 tax information and go back later and update with your 2006 tax information.”

Even families that don’t complete the form will have the process demystified. They can complete the application at home, or students can fill out the missing information at school with the help of a financial aid champion, Schmidt said.

He predicted that once families begin filling out the form, they will find it less onerous than they expected. “It’s terribly frightening to look at… but when you get into it a lot of it is information that people know. And the rest of it is information that is fairly readily available; they just have to get it.”

“If the family has the information, and they have reasonable keyboarding skills, we can get it done in probably about 30 minutes.”

HARMATE ENCOURAGED every student to fill out a FAFSA form, even those who think they may not be eligible for financial aid.

Schmidt said he tells families, “You can speculate and you can guess and you can say ‘Well I don’t think I can afford college and I don think I’m eligible for financial aid,’ but with a form like FAFSA, at least you’ll get a sense of what the government thinks you can contribute.” Of course, colleges may not offer to meet a student’s full financial need, but Schmidt said the champions help students negotiate with their schools to find a financial aid package their families can afford.

Braunlich said College Access Fairfax estimates more than 600 students in the county filled out FAFSA applications last year solely because of help from the non-profit organization funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

“We work with a number of kids who probably started senior year thinking there was no way they would go to college,” said Schmidt.

On Jan. 20 and Feb. 10, students will have two chances to disprove that idea. “Why speculate when it takes maybe 30 minutes of serious work in front of a computer to come up with a real number to talk about?” Schmidt asked.