- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A new study says hundreds of thousands of college students who may be eligible for federal financial aid don’t get it for a simple reason: They don’t apply.

The study released yesterday by the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents colleges and universities, says that half of the 8 million undergraduates enrolled in the 1999-2000 academic year at institutions participating in federal student aid programs did not complete the main federal aid application form.

Many were well off, and correctly assumed they wouldn’t receive aid, but the study found that 1.7 million low- and moderate-income students also failed to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Two-thirds of community-college students did not apply for aid, compared with 42 percent at public four-year colleges and 13 percent at private colleges.

The study concludes that 850,000 of those students would have been eligible for a Pell Grant, the principal federal grant for low-income students.

The findings underscore a point often made by educators: Even as college costs rise, students often miss financial aid opportunities because they aren’t aware of how the system works.

“It’s frustrating when you know someone could be eligible and they just don’t do it for various reasons,” said Tammy Capps, financial aid director at Shawnee Community College in Ullin, Ill., where about 900 of the 2,500 students receive Pell Grants. She said the form’s complexity is often a reason students don’t apply.

“We’ll even help them fill it out,” she said. “But we have to talk to them face to face to give that information, and that doesn’t always happen. They don’t think to call and ask.”

Few students with more than $40,000 in family income receive Pell Grants, said Jacqueline Smith, director of ACE’s Center for Policy Analysis. But they can get other federal aid, like subsidized student loans. FAFSA forms often are the first step in applying for other types of aid, such as support from states or schools.

The study acknowledges that some poorer students might skip FAFSA forms because they line up adequate funding elsewhere, but Miss Smith said many would have ended up with more aid if they had filled out the form.

“Everybody assumes the money is for someone else,” Miss Smith said, adding that focus groups her organization has conducted reveal wide misconceptions about financial aid. “We talked to middle-class parents who said the money’s only available if you’re really poor, and poor parents said you had to have a perfect SAT score.”

The government has worked to simplify the FAFSA, but it still runs four pages and includes several worksheets, and Miss Smith said complexity likely is an issue in some cases.

Department of Education spokeswoman Susan Aspey said officials hadn’t had the chance to read the full report, but noted that the department launched a public relations campaign last year to increase awareness of federal financial aid. It also has reached out to minority groups underrepresented on American campuses, she said.

Miss Aspey said that about 9 million students will receive federal assistance this year in some form, and about 75 percent of all undergraduates whose parents’ combined yearly income is less than $30,000 filed a FAFSA.

The study also indicates that many students suffer by turning in their FAFSA forms late. There is no deadline for federal aid like the Pell Grants, but many state and institutional sources require FAFSA submissions before April 1.

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