Assistance with financial-aid process is available

Once high-school seniors finish visiting and applying to colleges, the next step for their families is finding financial aid.

According to college officials, the financial-aid process for any prospective student begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — commonly known as FAFSA. The information provided on the FAFSA establishes a dollar figure known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which colleges use to calculate how much financial aid a student is eligible to receive. Based on these figures, financial-aid offices annually award more than $150 billion in federal grants, work-study funds and loans for students attending college, career school or graduate school, according to information at https://studentaid.ed.gov.

Most public colleges and many private universities also determine what they will award to students based on financial need as demonstrated on the FAFSA form, said Sylvia Méndez, assistant director for Monroe Community College’s financial aid office. Some highly selective private universities also require student’s families to complete additional financial forms.

Students heading off to college this fall and in previous years filled out the FAFSA beginning on Jan. 1 of their senior years in high school, reporting income information from their own and their families’ prior-year income-tax forms, Méndez, noted.Yet most families do not file their tax forms until late January at the earliest. Many families were forced to estimate their incomes to complete the FAFSA, Méndez said. Then, after filing their income-tax returns, these families were required to update the FAFSAs and make necessary corrections, she said.

Beginning with aid applications for the 2017-18 school year, however, the FAFSA process will begin in Oct. 1. Families will report information from the income tax returns they filed the prior spring, but will not have to update that data, she said. The earlier availability of the FAFSA form will help streamline the process for families and college financial aid officers, Méndez said, and is intended to reduce inaccuracies and eliminate the need for supporting documents to verify information. It also gives colleges more time to review applications, possibly enabling them to issue financial-aid award letters earlier, Méndez added.

"Now, when a student gets a (financial aid) letter, it will have accurate information," she said.

Méndez explained that the offers entailed on these financial-aid letters may include funding from a combination of sources, ranging from New York’s Tuition Assistance Program to federal grants and loans, as well as a college’s own grants and academic scholarships. While scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid, students must begin repaying some loans as soon as six months after graduating or leaving school, according to https://studentaid.ed.gov.

Since applying for financial aid is so complicated, Méndez said MCC offers workshops throughout the year to help families navigate the process. Many school districts as well as other colleges and organizations offer similar assistance.

"Whenever we can go out to community, we do and talk about financial aid," she said.

Personal assistance also is available if a student makes an appointment with a financial-aid counselor, said. Méndez, who noted that she and another counselor are available for MCC families who need bilingual assistance.

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