Editorial, Sept. 28, 2017

Sep 28, 2017

Don't fear FAFSA

It's a name that strikes fear in the hearts of parents and students alike: FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

However, the dreaded gathering of financial documents and filling out seemingly endless forms can greatly benefit college students and their families with grants and scholarships for higher education. Maine students left nearly $11 million on the table during the last round of funding — those grants and scholarships, which do not need to be paid back, could have gone to Waldo County students.

A recent rule change has made the FAFSA available Oct. 1, instead of in January, as has been traditional. So, let's make this year the one in which more than half of Waldo County high school seniors complete the FAFSA.

According to nerdwallet.com, the number of area students completing the FAFSA has decreased in recent years. At Belfast Area High School in 2015, 55 percent of seniors filled out the application; in 2016 the number rose to almost 57 percent — then dropped to 52 percent this year.

At Mount View in Thorndike, applications reached a high of 64 percent in 2016, only to plummet to 55 percent in 2017. Searsport District High School saw a significant jump from 35 percent in 2015 to almost 60 percent in 2016, but applications fell to 54 percent this year.

Islesboro has been the exception, with consistently high percentages of seniors completing the FAFSA, though the average dropped by nearly 30 percent this year.

It is unclear why families are choosing not to complete the FAFSA, but Finance Authority of Maine officials (aka FAME) have a theory:

“Unfortunately, many families mistakenly believe they won’t be eligible for federal financial aid, so they don’t fill out the FAFSA, leaving potentially significant grant money on the table or missing out on financial aid all together,” said Martha Johnston, FAME director of education. “We want to change that and encourage every Maine family sending a child off to college, trade or technical school to complete the FAFSA.”

According to FAME, there is no specific income cut-off so families won’t know what they are eligible to receive unless they apply. And any number of grants and scholarships can make a big difference in helping to reduce total student debt.

Average student debt in Maine is $29,644 per student, and 63 percent of Maine students graduate owing that money. Some who complete the FAFSA will also be offered different types of loans to fund education. The loans — subsidized and unsubsidized — are not grants or scholarships and have different pay-back terms and interest rates.

For those still intimidated at the thought of FAFSA, there are resources available to help, including a FAME-sponsored event Thursday, Oct. 12, at 4 p.m. at Waldo County Technical Center. No registration is required for the free event, but it is encouraged in case of cancellation or postponement. Parents and students can contact FAME to register, and for assistance, by calling 1-800-228-3734, emailing education@famemaine.com or on FAME's website at famemaine.com. Other events across the state also are planned and listed on the website.

Don't need help? Go to fafsa.gov, and have ready:

  • FSA ID — this user name and password is needed to access all Federal Student Aid websites, including the FAFSA. It is recommended the student and one parent create it ahead of time at fsaid.ed.gov.
  • Social Security numbers (SSN) for student and parents.
  • 2016 Federal Income Tax Returns, W2s and other records of money earned (an IRS Data Retrieval Tool can transfer 2016 income and tax information to automatically populate the FAFSA form).
  • Current bank statements for student and parents.

Colleges, universities and trade schools the student chooses will receive the FAFSA information electronically, which helps determine the financial aid package offered to the student.

We hope all seniors and their parents will take the time to complete the FAFSA. After all, who doesn't like college money that doesn't have to be paid back?

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