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College-bound students forgo millions in aid by avoiding FAFSA

University of South Florida biomedical sciences sophomore Jacob Norman, 20, seeks help at the university’s financial aid office on Friday. About 42 percent of USF students get Pell Grants.
Published Jan. 18, 2015

TAMPA — Van Tran remembers the first time she received federal financial aid.

As a Pinellas Park High School senior, she was looking forward to her future at the University of South Florida. She recalls meetings with her guidance counselors, classroom information sessions and school announcements, all urging students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA.

"I didn't really know the threshold," she said. "I kind of felt like I wouldn't qualify."

To her surprise, Tran, now 22, wound up receiving about $3,700 in Pell Grants for college.

Tran is typical. Nearly half of all high school students never even submit an FAFSA. In Florida alone, a new study finds, more than $100 million in available college aid known as Pell Grants goes unclaimed. Unlike other forms of aid, Pell Grants do not need to be repaid.

Researcher Gianna Sen-Gupta worked on the study conducted by NerdScholar, a higher education sector of the consumer advocacy group NerdWallet.

"I think there's always been talk of a lot of students leaving money on the table but not exactly how much money that was," she said.

The national estimate is an eye-popping $3 billion in unclaimed aid.

What's going on?

"I think it's Florida students' ambivalence to the financial aid process," said Troy Miller, associate research director at Florida College Access Network. "I don't think people quite understand just how many students are dependent on financial aid to go to college."

FAFSA has long had a reputation among parents and students as being a huge hassle because it requires detailed financial disclosures. People who think financial aid is only for low-income families may not bother. FAFSA is also a source for federal loans and work-study programs.

Low FAFSA completion rates are not a new problem, Miller said. Just last March, President Barack Obama visited Miami's Coral Reef High School, where he announced an executive order to allow school counselors and administrators to see which students did and did not complete the form so they could reach kids who needed help. Obama visited Coral Reef because it ranked second-highest in the state for completion rates last year, Miller said.

This year, three Tampa Bay area high schools ranked among the highest in the state for filling out the form: Pasco High School at No. 10 with 43.1 percent, Hillsborough High at No. 13 with 42.3 percent and Pinellas Park High at No. 29 with 38 percent.

"Our goal for this year is to increase the amount of Pell received by Florida graduates by $10 million," Miller said.

Pasco High School guidance counselor and career specialist Mignon Edwards said she was surprised her school ranked relatively well.

Edwards said she constantly reminds her students in person and on social media about the FAFSA and the potential awards, which average from $1,000 to about $5,000.

"Seniors come in my office all the time," for help with FAFSA and college applications. "This is like their home away from home."

She said the school also hosts financial aid nights, open to students and parents seeking more information.

"We had 45 here on Tuesday evening, and that was one of the largest turnouts we've ever had," Edwards said.

Hillsborough High School college career counselor Vivian Fiallo said her school district constantly sends out FAFSA reminders in the form of postcards, emails and posters around the school.

"I know when my own kids were starting college I started thinking, 'Oh no, now I have to fill out this form,' " she said. "But it's really not that complicated. I think it's just a lack of understanding about what people can gain from filling out that form."

At USF, where Tran has studied cellular and molecular biology since 2011, about 42 percent of students are Pell-grant recipients, said Billie Jo Hamilton, the university's vice president of enrollment planning and management.

"Now that it's online it's a much easier process than it used to be," Hamilton said. "We blanket our students with notifications."

Tran said her latest Pell Grant allowed her to rent an apartment, saving her the hassle of a 40-minute commute to and from campus each day.

"Pretty much all of my friends have Pell Grants," she said. "It doesn't hurt to try."

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @rachelacrosby.

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