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Push is on to get Florida college students more federal aid

— Jeannie Vaughn would like to dispel the notion that the federal financial aid application is unwieldy, intrusive, or, as one U.S. senator put it, “ridiculous.”

“It was a very simple process to go through,” said the mother of a Countryside High School senior who will be heading to college this fall. “If it's going to get my kid money for college, I'm all for it.”

Vaughn and her daughter, Amber, went against a trend in Florida in punching their ticket to grant money that can help make college affordable. Less than half of Florida high school grads fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, leaving $100 million in federal aid on the table, financial aid experts say.

They're trying to change that, with “FASFA Night” and “College Goal Sunday” events aimed at getting more of the forms filled out and putting more of those federal dollars into Florida students' pockets.

Last week, Vaughn and her daughter took part in a “FAFSA Night” at Countryside High School in Clearwater. St. Petersburg College will host another one Tuesday at Gibbs High School. There are several “College Goal Sunday” events around the Tampa Bay area. Vaughn urged her fellow parents to go, and fill out the form.

“They should. It's so easy, and the staff is marvelous,” Vaughn said.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that last year, nearly 60 percent of Florida 12th graders filing the FAFSA were eligible for a Pell grant, the need-based student aid. That put the state sixth in the nation for the percentage of students who qualify for help.

But only 49.6 percent of graduating seniors completed the form, landing Florida 40th in the nation in participation.

“There's typically a lot of uncertainty around the financial aid process and eligibility, but our message is, complete the FAFSA and take it from there,” said Troy Miller, associate director for research and policy at the Florida College Access Network. “Of course parents want their kids to go to college. But only about a third agree or strongly agree that college is affordable. The only way to find out if you can afford college or not is by completing these forms.”

The Florida College Access Network has issued a “$10 Million FAFSA Challenge” to high schools. If just 10 more seniors completed a FAFSA this spring at each high school in Florida, at least $10 million more in federal grants would end up in college students' pockets, the organization said.

“Consider how much money you can get for taking 20 or 25 minutes of your time, even 30 minutes. We're talking thousands and thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands over four years,” said Miller.

The average Floridian who qualified for a Pell grant received about $3,500, Miller said. The amount can exceed $5,000.

So the push is on. At the University of South Florida, students are bombarded with banners around campus and emails in their inbox reminding them to file during “FAFSA February.” Advisors are stationed at the financial aid office to provide one-on-one assistance.

Billie Jo Hamilton, assistant vice president for enrollment planning and management at USF, acknowledged FAFSA has a reputation of being difficult to complete.

“This would be purely speculation on my part, but a lot of the parents of high school-aged students are reminded of this horribly long, arduous process that they used to have to go through to complete a FAFSA,” she said.

Now, “It's way easier. Not that it's still not intimidating for some families, I'm sure. But that's why we're all here to help.”

In response to President Barack Obama's call for free community college tuition in January, Sen. Lamar Alexander , the Tennessee Republican, fired back that the federal government could be more helpful by reducing paperwork “for the ridiculous 108-question student aid application form which discourages 2 million Americans from applying for federal Pell grants.”

The form has been shortened, and now features ta direct link to Internal Revenue Service data, which eases the burden of recreating income data.

At the Countryside event, Todd Smith, director of financial assistance services at SPC, said at least 75 families received help.

“If you have somebody working with you, and they sit down with you, you can get through the process,” he said. “You always have someone who has a unique financial situation or a unique familial situation, but for the most part those things can be dealt with fairly quickly when you have a financial aid professsional working with you.”

Among the beneficiaries at Countryside was Sandy Tidd, whose daughter, Holly, is about to graduate from Pinellas Park High.

“It was priceless, especially for someone like me,” said Tidd. “I'm not a computer person. She took me through it step by step, otherwise I would have never gotten it.”

Attempting to complete the form on her own, Tidd said she was somehow directed to a for-profit FAFSA site that would have charged her $189 upon completion.

Because of her income, it isn't likely that her daughter will receive a hefty award, she said. But the FAFSA process also can provide information on work study and loans.

“Anything will help,” said Tidd.

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Not all events take place on Sundays


Feb. 21, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., East Bay High School Media Center, Gibsonton

Feb. 22, 12 noon -3 p.m., University of Tampa, John Sykes College of Business, Room 143


Feb. 21, 9 a.m.-12 noon, Marchman Technical Education Center, Port Richey


Feb. 19, 4:30 p.m.-7 p.m., Mycroschool Pinellas, St. Petersburg

Feb. 28, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., St. Petersburg College EPICENTER, Clearwater

Upcoming “FAFSA Night” Event

Feb. 17, 6 p.m.-8 p.m., Gibbs High School, St. Petersburg

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