College Goal Sunday: free help applying for financial aid


February 12, 2012
Various Colleges,
Cost: Free

College-bound students have a lot on their minds — applications, majors and financial aid, which may seem like Swahili to many. The good news is that on Feb. 12, students of all ages can get free assistance in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Through a collaborative effort between the Michigan Guaranty Agency, the Michigan Student Financial Aid Association and EduGuide, multiple colleges are hosting College Goal Sunday to jump-start the financial aid process.

Financial aid experts will be on hand from 2 to 4 p.m. at locations like Eastern Michigan University, the University of Michigan in Dearborn, Madonna University, St. Clair Community College and Baker College of Auburn Hills. See a full list of participating locations at http://www.collegegoalsundayusa.org/studentsFamilies/displayStateProfile.cfm?stateID=22.

If you’re new to financial aid or just need a refresher on the what, why and how of getting money for college, here’s a rundown on the basics, along with some tips for success.

Types of aid 

  • Federal or state aid, based on financial need and not paid back.
  • Scholarships from public or private sources, based on academic or athletic abilities, and not paid back.
  • Loans from the government or private financial institutions that must be paid back with interest.
  • Grants from public or private sources.
  • Work study, a federal program that pays for a portion of school expenses.

The first step: FAFSA

“All financial aid begins by filling out the FAFSA,” explained Peggy LaFleur, Ph.D., a Michigan Department of Education employee who educates high school students and counselors about financial aid.

The form (www.fafsa.ed.gov) requests information on income and assets for the student and his or her parents. Don’t confuse that site with www.fafsa.com, warned LaFleur. “That’s a business and requires the person to pay to complete the FAFSA.”

The form then goes to the state to determine eligibility for aid at that level. From there, the student gets a Student Aid Report (SAR) and up to 10 schools chosen by the student receive the report as well. The schools then send the student an award letter, which includes government aid and any applicable school scholarships.

The FAFSA can be completed year-round but should be in by June 30 of the year the financial aid will be used. Since it’s based on the previous year’s income, the first of the year, when tax information is available, should be the target. LaFleur recommends applying as early as possible.

The FAFSA must be completed each year in order to qualify, and even when students think they have too much income, LaFleur recommends applying. “It doesn’t cost them anything to file it. The only cost is if you don’t file it.”

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert who publishes www.fastweb.com and www.finaid.org, recommends applying even if you didn’t qualify the previous year. “Being rejected for federal aid is sometimes a prerequisite for private awards,” he writes.

Tips for success

Be open to work study: Indicate on the FAFSA that you’re interested in work study, a federal program through which you can get a limited amount of money for school expenses, including books, tuition and living expenses. The work might even boost your future career.

You’re not obligated to accept a work study if you check the box. It’s simply keeps your options open.

Search scholarships: Use online sources to find scholarships that match your abilities and interests. See the resource list below.

And those offers that come in the mail asking for $25 to apply for a scholarship? Proceed with caution. “You shouldn’t have to pay money to get money,” LaFleur said. “That ought to be a red flag.”

Don’t give up: “Leave no stone unturned,” LaFleur said. “File the FAFSA and then look into scholarships and other sources.”

Use online resources: Visit www.ed.gov or www.studentaid.ed.gov for information from the U.S. Department of Education. For a guide to financial aid sources, check www.finaid.org. Search scholarships at www.fastweb.com.

For more information about College Goal Sunday, visit www.micollegegoal.org. You don’t need an appointment to attend and get assistance, and you don’t need to be attending the school or university where you receive the help.