High school seniors are told early and often to fill out a free application for federal student aid— typically called a FAFSA – to help them pay for college. The problem is that filling out the FAFSA requires tax returns, Social Security numbers for parents, and other data that students generally don’t have at their fingertips.
A handful of students sat in front of computers on a recent Saturday morning at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas, determined to fill out the FAFSA and send it in.
How much financial aid each student gets depends on how much their parents can contribute, and the college they’ll attend.
Juana Flores, a waitress, dragged her daughter Ashley to this FAFSA bootcamp. It was arranged by the Dallas school district and by Commit, the education non-profit.
“She needs to go to college,” Juana Flores said. Ashley hasn’t applied to colleges yet, and isn’t sure where she wants to go. But Juana insisted that she fill out the financial aid forms. “I don’t want her to have the same job I do,” she said.
Other students, like Abel Hussein, dragged a parent along. The Bryan Adams senior needed help with questions like his mother’s marriage date. He types in tons of information about her and his stepdad, all in the hope of a tuition break at Richland College.
“I’m trying to major in mechanical engineering,” he said, between filling out pages in the online form. He hopes to become a car mechanic at some point, and needs technical training. “I like math, and I want to do something with my hands,” he said.
Other kids didn’t have a parent at the bootcamp, but had them on the phone.
Najullah Nuridin lost track of how many times she called her dad while filling out the form.
“Do you have my mom’s email address?” she asked. Her dad dug something up and read it out to her.
Najullah admits that the whole college process has been a little overwhelming.
“I still don’t get it,” she said. She hopes that things will come together by the time she graduates. “Our college teacher will help us.”
A goal to get more free money
By lunchtime on this particular Saturday morning, 12 students had finished submitting the form. Add that to the dozens who filled it out earlier this year, and Bryan Adams is inching toward the goal of getting 40 percent of students to apply for student aid this spring.
“During the day students always come into my room,” said Amina Igeh, a college advisor for Bryan Adams. The school hallways boast many posters, reminding students to fill out the FAFSA.
Igeh thinks the kids and their parents are mostly getting the message. “They bring their parents' tax returns. Or the parents will come in during lunch” to help answer questions and get the form in."
Some of the snags that are keeping her from reaching that 40 percent goal include the reluctance of students without legal residency to fill out federal forms. She has a ready answer for them.
“The great thing about Texas is that there is the TASFA available for students who are undocumented,” she says. TASFA is the Texas Application for Student Financial Aid.
“Other barriers are that maybe students who are citizens but their parents are undocumented don’t want to fill out their FAFSA,” she said.
She assures them and their parents that it’s easy and safe to fill it out and apply for financial aid.
Avoiding student debt at all costs
Senior Leslie Ikwuagwu’s got her FAFSA in, and her college dreams got a little closer.
“I applied to UT-San Antonio a long time ago, and I got accepted this morning. I feel great. I haven’t told Ms. Igeh yet, I just remembered. But I feel great,” she said.
She wants to study biology and go to medical school, to become an anesthesiologist. Maybe the FAFSA sounds like about as much fun as filling out your taxes, but Ikwuagwu knows it get her access to financial aid.
Her senior spring is going by fast—she’s got prom, she’s got AP exams, graduation, all these deadlines to pay for cap and gown.
With the FAFSA done, she checked one thing off the list.
To find out about upcoming financial aid workshops, visit Commit's event page.
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