Financial Aid Prospecting - ONLINE: The Internet Is Loaded with Valuable Financial Aid Information, but Few Campus Web Sites Are Designed to Help Them Find It

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Financial Aid Prospecting -- ONLINE: The Internet Is Loaded With Valuable Financial Aid Information, but Few Campus Web Sites Are Designed to Help Them Find It

Log on to any of the hundreds of college Web sites now available on the Internet, and you'll find everything from virtual tours to online applications. But too few of these sites contain the information would-be college students seek most: The what, where, when and how of financial aid.

Around 83 percent of students applying to college will use the Internet to research information about schools in which they are interested, according to a recent survey conducted by Peterson's, the college guide-book publishing giant. Of these students, 69 percent say they expect the Internet will be most useful in the search for financial assistance. That's more than twice as many -- 32 percent -- who say the Web would be helpful in preparing and narrowing the list of colleges to which they might apply. Sites offering tips about scholarships, grants and loans can be of particular use to Black students, since roughly 63 percent of all African American college students use some sort of financial aid.

Of the 71 historically Black colleges and universities that maintain sites on the Internet, only about three dozen have sections devoted to financial aid. These financial aid pages range from the not so helpful -- which generally reiterate of the college's financial aid policies and tuition costs -- to the excellent, which supplement useful, clear descriptions of the financial aid process with links to other sites on the Internet. Among the stellar examples, experts say, are Oakwood College's "Easy 1-2-3" guide and Norfolk State University's "Search for Free Money" (see Gleeming Web Sites, pg. 39).

The good news for college and university Web administrators is that upgrading an institution's financial section can be done virtually expense-free simply by linking to Web resources already online.

The centerpiece of every financial aid Web page should be a link to the online Federal Application for Financial Student Aid, known as FAFSA, at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

The U.S. Department of Education maintains this site and processes the applications. This means that individual colleges and universities don't have to make the investment in setting up their own electronic financial aid applications; they merely need to steer students who visit the school's Web site to this link.

The obvious advantage to directing students to file their FAFSA online is the degree to which it expedites the process. About one in every seven FAFSA paper applications is delayed in processing because important information is either incomplete or inaccurate on the form.

Such delays can have a crucial effect on the amount of aid students receive, since much of the assistance available is awarded on a first come, first-served basis. For universities, these delays impede the process of enrolling new students and can add to administrative expenses.

At the Department of Education's site, FAFSA applications quickly are checked by computers that can notify applicants almost instantly if they have left out information or have included responses that appear inconsistent.

By linking a college's Web site to FAFSA, financial aid officers can encourage applicants at their respective campuses to fill out the forms electronically and thereby reduce some of the hassle caused by the delays.

In addition to its electronic FAFSA, the Education Department's site posts an online version of its comprehensive Student Guide at www.ed.gov/prog_info/SFA/Student Guide, the essential resource for families applying for assistance in paying for higher education. …