January 16

Maine experts’ advice: Don’t wait to apply for financial aid

Almost half of Maine’s high school seniors haven’t applied for some of the $150 billion pot available to college students.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

It’s a multipage government form that asks for tax information and can have a major impact on your future.

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APPLYING: Erica Bean, left, and her daughter Hanna Turgeon talk about applying for college financial aid Wednesday at their Sidney home. Turgeon plans to study nursing at University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a serious matter, but prospective college students and their parents shouldn’t be intimidated or overwhelmed, two experts said, or they could leave thousands of dollars on the table.

The application, known as FAFSA, is the only way to claim a piece of the $150 billion pot of federal grants, loans and work-study funds to help pay for college or any other higher education.

Some state financial aid programs and private scholarship funds also require students to complete the FAFSA. In Maine, the State of Maine Grant Program, Educators for Maine Program and Maine Health Professions Loan Program are among those requiring the FAFSA.

Even so, in recent years nearly half of Maine high school seniors have not completed the FAFSA, according to data from the Finance Authority of Maine.

Mila Tappan, college access counselor at the Finance Authority of Maine, and Kate Leveille, college and career access director at Maine Education Services, help people figure out how to pay for college. They offered this advice for navigating the FAFSA process and maximizing the amount of financial aid a student can receive.

Don’t dawdle

Many students won’t learn where they’ve been admitted until April and won’t make a commitment until May 1 — or even later, for students attending schools with rolling admissions. But that’s no reason not to file the FAFSA now.

Many colleges and universities have deadlines for applying for financial aid. At the University of Southern Maine, for example, it’s Feb. 15. The University of Maine at Augusta has a priority deadline of March 1, meaning anyone who submits by then is guaranteed to receive consideration for aid.

“We know if students get their FAFSAs done early, they’re going to meet deadlines,” Tappan said. “Once they get beyond January, those deadlines start occurring. ... Don’t take a chance on missing out on financial aid.”

Even if a school accepts a later application, it’s less likely to offer assistance.

“Schools have only so much money to give out, and you want to make sure you’re in that queue as soon as possible,” Leveille said.

(First) F is for free

Be on guard when searching online about the FAFSA. Some companies have set up websites with official-looking addresses to sell FAFSA preparation and filing services. One website this week was advertising its services for an $88 fee.

Filers should make sure they use the Department of Education’s official site, fafsa.ed.gov.

“Don’t ever pay to submit your FAFSA,” Leveille said. “The first F in FAFSA is free.”

Assistance in filling out the form is also available for free, via college financial aid offices, high school counselors and organizations like the Finance Authority of Maine and Maine Education Services.

In addition to the workshop series starting this weekend, the Finance Authority of Maine offers guidance online at www.famemaine.com/fafsa and by phone during regular business hours at 1-800-228-3734.

Everyone should do it

Adults. Continuing students. High-income families. Anyone who’s even considering higher education in 2014-15.

Most FAFSA outreach targets college-bound high school seniors, but that’s only a segment of the group that can benefit from federal financial aid.

There are no age restrictions on federal financial aid; financial need is the only consideration.

Aid doesn’t carry over from year to year, so students should resubmit the FAFSA for each year of school. Tappan said the renewal is usually easier because it carries forward much of the information from the previous year.

Tappan said she often hears people say they don’t want to bother filing the FAFSA because they think they earn too much to be eligible for anything.

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