An estimated 22,000 low-income students at Florida's state universities are being shortchanged, leaving huge sums of federal grants on the table by not applying for them. Why? Some say the application form is too complex, others say students think they don't qualify. But it's clear that high school guidance counselors and university financial aid offices could be doing more to make sure that all low-income college-bound students apply for government financial aid.
A new report from the board that oversees Florida's public universities, the Board of Governors, estimated 22,000 undergraduates failed to collect $24 million in Pell Grants in 2005 by never submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid. That is the key form to qualifying for all kinds of state and federal financial aid. Pell Grants — which don't have to be paid back — provide as much as $4,731 per year to students whose families make $40,000 or less. The grant can be used for all types of college-related expenses including tuition, room and board and other costs.
There is no doubt that the six-page, 120-question FAFSA form is onerous to complete. And it requires the cooperation of parents, because their income tax forms are needed. But dealing with the inconvenience can mean the difference between affording college and not affording it, between putting a young person on a path to success and holding him back from fulfilling his potential.
Florida is not alone. National studies suggest similar problems exist in other states. During his campaign, President Obama promised to get rid of the FAFSA form, replacing it with a box on income tax forms that would authorize use of the tax information for college financial aid. But until this sensible step is taken, Florida needs to be proactive.
The key is enlisting the state's school guidance counselors to educate students that financial aid still may be available even if they receive the state's merit-based Bright Futures scholarship. Pell Grants are awarded in addition to Bright Futures, as are other scholarships and grants. Counselors should make sure that every college-bound student has applied for aid. And college financial aid officers should put systems in place to catch anyone who falls through the cracks. That's not too much to ask for another $24 million in federal aid for Florida's low-income students.