Magazine article University Business

FAFSA and the Community College: Communicating the Importance of Applying for Federal Student Aid

Magazine article University Business

FAFSA and the Community College: Communicating the Importance of Applying for Federal Student Aid

Article excerpt

With college costs still top mind for most families, financial aid is more important than ever. Community college leaders are especially challenged to communicate the importance of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to their student body, which appears to be less likely to apply for federal aid. According to the report "FAFSA Completion Rates by Level and Control of Institution," 58 percent of Pell-eligible community college students applied for aid, compared to 77 percent of four-year students in the 2007-08 academic year.

"It just doesn't make sense that the institutions that have the lowest income have the lowest application rates of any sector," says David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.

"For many students, their ability to continue their education hinges on the availability of financial aid," points out Michelle Ma, director of marketing, public relations, and governmental affairs at Coastline Community College (Calif.). Research has shown that students who work and attend college part-time are less likely to persist.

Barriers

One of the first things stopping students from applying for aid is a belief that they won't qualify. The federal budget talks held over this past summer, with their focus on the Pell Grant and education funding, might have brought the FAFSA to people's attention, but not necessarily in a good way as it cast doubt on the availability of aid. "You hear about how Wall Street needs certainty to operate and it's the same thing for Main Street," says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "All the doubt is not helpful for college access."

Additionally, when people think about college costs, they tend to focus on tuition, but not other costs to attend, such as books and general living expenses, says Baime. It's a sentiment Ma echoes. "Financial aid is extremely important to community college students. Here, tuition is only $36/unit (for California residents)--which seems extremely affordable--but if you factor in the cost of living, books, transportation, and other incidentals, going to school in California can be extremely expensive."

A misconception about financial aid is that people tend to categorize it as grants, says Draeger. "But you can't take out federal student loans without filling out a FAFSA." He also theorizes that parents might not want to share financial data with their children. Or, they might not want to provide data to the government, says Baime, adding that for-profit applicants, who have a similar student profile, apply for aid with greater frequency than community college applicants.

"Students sometimes have the impression that they will never qualify, so they figure there is no point to the process. Some feel it a weakness to ask for financial help," says Cynthia Pienkowski, Coastline's director of financial aid. "Despite many attempts by the State and Federal governments and colleges themselves to promote and publicize the programs, many students have said they had no idea financial aid existed."

FAFSA, Simplified

The report "Apply to Succeed" by The Advisory Committee On Student Financial Assistance found that the complexity of the FAFSA form was not as much of a barrier to completion as people believed a fact especially true with the new, simplified version. "I think more students are applying became the FAFSA has been simplified," says Jamie Quiroz, a financial aid specialist for Cerritos Community College District (Calif.). "It can take 10 minutes now, where before it took a few hours." Draeger notes that "the simplification was long overdue. It makes it easier for all students, but particularly for low-income students. The skip logic is helpful. It has also increased the validity of the data, because people can import their IRS data directly. …

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