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Fillin’ in a FAFSA

Paying for collegeThere’s nothing magical about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It doesn’t guarantee a student’s acceptance into college. It doesn’t undo past mistakes or change biology grades from a D to an A. What advocating the FAFSA does is help students and families get over the last hurdle on the path to college—paying for it.

There are two major ways that financial barriers impact college attendance.

Some students make all the right academic and personal choices and start on the path to college early. They know which courses to take, when to apply for admission, and how to write a compelling personal essay. But they drop out in their first semester, or never enroll in the first place, just because they fail to plan how to fund it. Paying for higher education takes a huge investment, but many families without college experience ignore it until the very end. Applying to college without completing a FAFSA is like house-shopping without a pre-approved mortgage: it’s just dreaming.

At the other end of the spectrum are students who think education after graduation is impossible, so they never prepare for college at all. Maybe it seems financially unreachable for “someone like them,” or maybe they’ve been told they just aren’t “college material.” For these students, the mundane requirements of high school are simply menial chores needed to earn their diploma. They don’t take college prep courses or study for ACT exams. They don’t explore careers or visit schools. Universities and colleges seem like ridiculous places only rich people go.

Both possibilities are scary and unnecessary. The truth is that families can apply for state, federal, and private grants and scholarships just by completing the FAFSA. The U.S. Department of Education uses it to determine how much a family can afford to pay for college each school year. In Illinois, results are used to determine eligibility for programs like Federal Pell Grants, Illinois MAP Grants, Federal Work Study, and student loan programs.

Many students might be the first in their family to attend college. Unfortunately, some never learn about the FAFSA until it’s too late. So continue to spread the word and remind them that the application is free. It’s not as difficult as people say.

Jacqueline Moreno
Managing Director
College Access Initiatives
Illinois Student Assistance Commission

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