Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

When it comes to financial aid, time is money

Prospective college students who apply early improve their chances of getting help with tuition

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Federal and state money is available for parents looking for help to pay for their children’s college tuition, but getting organized early is important, counselors say.

Each year, billions of dollars are available in grants and loans from the federal government, said Cherri Smith of the Making it Count programs, who spoke at a financial aid workshop Dec. 13 at Silver Spring’s John F. Kennedy High School, one of several similar events held at county high schools.

However, Smith, whose organization helps parents and students learn about financial aid, emphasized that getting a head start on the application process was important. Financial aid advisors at colleges and high schools agree.

‘‘Many parents apply so late and are rushing around trying to do it at the last minute. They miss out on some money,” said Melissa Gregory, the financial aid director at Montgomery College.

Gregory said many students and their parents don’t know the process or the deadlines.

Montgomery College received about 12,000 applications for the fall semester this year and about 2,500 of those were not submitted until August. Those students have already missed the March 1 deadline for Maryland state aid and are way behind people who apply for federal aid after Jan. 1, Gregory said.

She also said that students are more likely to receive more grant money if they apply earlier. One grant, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which Montgomery College gives out to students who need extra funds for books or transportation, almost always runs out by July, Gregory said.

‘‘When people are applying late, no matter what school, you miss out on resources [and] a lot of institutional money,” she said.

Diana Hincapie, 23, of Rockville learned the hard way. Hincapie, a 2005 Wheaton High School graduate in her third year at Montgomery College and working toward a nursing degree, said she was able to rely entirely on scholarships for her first year at the college, but received much less money her second year when she waited until May to apply for financial aid, making her ineligible for any state grants.

This year, Hincapie, an immigrant with 8-year-old twins, was able to receive about double what she had the second year because she made sure her information was in by February. She said filling out forms for federal assistance gets less daunting each year.

‘‘The first year I did get help from my counselors, but then it’s easy to do it on your own online,” Hincapie said.

Caroline Ige of Silver Spring, an immigrant from England, has a son who is a junior at Kennedy. She said it is hard for anyone who did not grow up in the United States to understand the financial aid process, especially while filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms, or FAFSA. Those forms are required by many colleges and universities, although individual schools may require additional material.

Ige said she has to make sure she is diligent with her own research.

‘‘You can’t lie back and expect the school to drop everything on your lap,” she said.

Sharon Williams, a college and career coordinator for Clarksburg High School who advised students and parents at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring for 18 years, said the biggest challenge for parents is understanding the timing.

FAFSA forms can be filled out any time after Jan. 1; however, students and parents often think they need to finish their tax returns before applying. Parents can use their previous year’s tax information to get started and then send the new information when it becomes available, Williams said.

Williams said there are even some free federal tax filing programs that will allow a parent to send the applicable information directly to FAFSA.

Williams said the college application process and applying for financial aid should be done together. ‘‘As students start the college application process, for some odd reason, they separate the two and they really shouldn’t,” she said.

In some families, the financial aid process falls on the students, who have trouble with questions about income and taxes, Gregory said.

Nelson Almeida, 17, a senior at Wheaton High School, said he and his older sister have been given the responsibility of filling out the FAFSA on their own because they know English better than their parents.

‘‘It’s very difficult because the questions confused me and I’m not familiar with taxes and the money-crunching,” Almeida said.

However, he said it helped that his father is organized and can easily hand over information on taxes and financial assets.

Most students also can get help from counselors. At Wheaton High School’s career center, Joan Strasnick, the college and career counseling coordinator, and workers from CollegeTracks, give students one-on-one counseling throughout the application, financial aid and college choice process.

CollegeTracks is a nonprofit that works in Wheaton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools with students at risk for not going to college.

‘‘For a lot of kids, the whole thing can be daunting,” Strasnick said about applying to colleges and for financial aid. ‘‘They rely on us a lot.”