October 12 — 2:04 pm, 2018

College Connect: Complete the FAFSA now

For students and families with low-to-moderate household incomes, filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid early is critical.

Melissa Rowe

Photo by Jack Harner on Unsplash

You might be surprised to learn that Pennsylvania leads the nation in average student loan debt per borrower.

That’s right, according to a report by LendEDU, the average debt load for U.S. student borrowers in the Class of 2017 was $28,288, but students graduating from Pennsylvania’s colleges left with an average of $36,193 in student debt.

Why? Well, I asked State Sen. Art Haywood (D, Philadelphia), and his response was straightforward: “We’re funding higher education at the same level as about [the year] 2000. We have almost 20 years of inflation, and that cost is being put on the families.”

Essentially, without an increased allotment for colleges and universities in the state budget, Pennsylvania college students can expect to continue dealing with higher college costs. Many current college students will see an increase in their tuition costs before they graduate.

In Philadelphia, the vast majority of our public high school students are coming from low and moderate-income households. If anyone is feeling the weight of having to pay for college, Philadelphia students are – often having to work while in college to pay tuition.

For students and families with low-to-moderate household incomes, filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early is critical. By completing this application, students and their families will find out whether they qualify for the federal Pell Grant and get access to federal student loans.

When students complete the FAFSA, they will also learn their Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The federal formula used to determine this figure considers household income, the number of people supported by said income, and the number of family members enrolled in college. Simply put, the EFC is how much the government thinks a family can afford to pay toward the student’s college education. Colleges and universities will also consider this number when awarding need-based financial aid.

FAFSA completion is just the beginning, however. Any Pennsylvania resident who is eligible for the Pennsylvania State Grant administered through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) will be prompted to go directly to the PHEAA application form. This is the simplest way to access Pennsylvania state funds.

It’s important to note that the PHEAA has an earlier deadline for submission than the FAFSA, and funds from both federal and state agencies are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Completing the PHEAA not only gives students access to the Pennsylvania State Grant, but also to other awards that students can use to attend Pennsylvania institutions. PHEAA administers the Chafee Education and Training Grant for students aging out of foster care and the Partnerships for Access to Higher Education (PATH) grant for students who are awarded a scholarship or grant from a local PATH partner. Other sources of aid available through PHEAA are Pennsylvania’s Work-Study Program, aimed at getting students career-related work experience while assisting with the cost of college, and the Ready to Succeed Scholarship for students from middle-income households, who don’t qualify for the traditional PHEAA grant.

To secure financial aid for college, time is of the essence. The sooner that students’ financial aid profiles are sent to the colleges and universities for which they are applying, the better. Many colleges and universities have internal deadlines for scholarships and need-based aid, and students who wait to submit the FAFSA can miss out on thousands of dollars. This money moves quickly and will be awarded well before National Decision Day on May 1.

To start their FAFSA, students should visit FAFSA.gov (FAFSA is free to file and administered through the U.S. government). To learn more about PHEAA and its financial aid programs, go to PHEAA.org.

Melissa A. Rowe, M.Ed., is the founder of Capture Greatness! – Scholarship & College Coaching. Capture Greatness! has helped local students earn more than $1.5 million in scholarships for college. Learn more at CaptureGreatness.org.

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