Cashman: Clock starts ticking for financial aid

More than 17 million college students started applying Jan. 1 for financial aid available for the next academic year.

Access to most of the $236 billion in financial aid requires preparing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid application, which asks more than 130 asset, income and dependency questions.

Financial aid, available to nearly all students regardless of income, can significantly reduce students’ out-of-pocket college costs. According to Student Aid Financial Services Inc., in the 2011-12 academic year, undergraduate students on average received $13,218 in aid, including free grants; low-cost, federal education loans; and work-study opportunities. Students, who receive education support from military aid programs, also may increase their aid award by submitting a FAFSA.

Preparing a FAFSA pays off in another significant way for first-time college students. A 2011 study published by the Journal of Student Financial Aid showed first-year students who submit a FAFSA are 72 percent more likely to continue in college than students who do not file the aid application. Preparing a FAFSA is even more significant for lower-income students who are eligible for free Pell Grants. They are 122 percent more likely to remain in college compared to students who do not submit a FAFSA.

Accuracy is essential. Mistakes often can significantly reduce a student’s financial aid award. Timing also is important. Most aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Many states and colleges have specific financial aid deadlines.

A free hands-on workshop to complete the federal financial aid form online using college computers will be from 5-8 p.m. Feb. 21 at McHenry County College in Room A123. Appointments are required.

Staff members from the Office of Financial Aid and Veteran Services at MCC will help students and/or parents complete the online form for the 2013-14 FAFSA.

Call 815-455-8761 beginning Feb. 1 to schedule an appointment.

Elgin-based College Funding Team holds free workshops to explain students’ options for applying for financial aid and tips for maximizing an aid award. All workshops begin at 7 p.m., and students and their parents are encouraged to attend:

• Feb.7 at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd St., Woodstock.

• Feb. 28 at the Huntley Park District, 12015 Mill Street, Huntley.

• March 7 at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd St., Woodstock.

For more information, call 800-713-2151 or visit www.collegefundingteam.com.

Other resources include Student Financial Aid Services, which has assisted more than a million families prepare and file the FAFSA via the phone and Internet. The organization offers FAFSA preparation online for $79.99 and telephone preparation for $99.99. call toll-free 1-877-323-7224 or visit www.fafsa.com.

Professional FAFSA preparation also can save time. Students new to the FAFSA spend about 78 minutes to complete a FAFSA alone, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Repeat FAFSA applicants shave only 11 minutes off that time. In comparison, Student Financial Aid Services walks a student (or parent) through FAFSA preparation in about 20 minutes by telephone.

The free U.S. Department of Education FAFSA website is www.fafsa.ed.gov.

• Email ccashman@shawmedia.com

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