March 23, 2006
The financial aid process strikes so much fear in some students and their families that they avoid the process altogether and miss a number of opportunities for aid.

Some allow important application deadlines to pass, potentially losing substantial amounts of financial aid - or falsely believe they will not qualify.

And the worst thing you can do is nothing. Critical deadlines are approaching. Some colleges require financial aid applications as early as April 1, although students should check with the schools to which they are applying.

May 1 is an important date overall for Pennsylvania students statewide. "If they don't apply by then to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), they can lose out on state loan assistance, and that can be significant," says Rob Ritz, director of financial aid at HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College.

Students can apply anytime but are encouraged to apply early, especially if they are competing for scholarships.

"There is so much confusion, fear and misinformation surrounding the financial aid process that students and families often make poor choices. We recommend using all the free resources possible to get information.

"Information takes the fear out of the process. It can be a scary, overwhelming process, but it's not as bad as people think," says Ritz.

At HACC, sixty percent of students receive some type of financial aid.

The forms from the Federal government and loan organizations like PHEAA have been getting shorter and simpler each year.

Those applying for financial aid should expect free help from the financial aid offices of the colleges to which they are applying. Financial aid officers can help explain the difference between grants, loans, scholarships and other types of financial aid.

Students can apply for financial aid after January 1 each year. Every student applying for college or already attending college should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the application required for all those applying for financial aid. It can be filed on the paper form or on-line.

Filing on-line saves several weeks of time and is a better process. Students can apply on-line for a U.S. Department of Education PIN at The PIN serves as the student's electronic signature and provides access to their personal records. It also allows students to apply electronically for student aid and access their U.S. Department of Education records.

Students with a PIN can view their Student Aid Report in response to their FAFSA filing at More and more, students can check the status of their financial aid, as well as bills owed. They should always respond to letters requesting more information and check for any other application materials such as the College Scholarship Service's PROFILE application required by some schools.

"The FAFSA is the foundational form for financial aid, and it does a lot of work for the students. It obviously goes to the Federal government and state, as well as to any colleges to which the student may be applying and notes on the form," says Ritz.

The FAFSA form helps colleges know if students are available for grant assistance at the Federal and state levels, as well as student employment and student loan programs. In general, the form helps determine financial need for each student, which is the cost of attendance minus the expected family contribution.

Cost of attendance includes tuition and fees; room and board; books and supplies, equipment, transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses, including documented costs for a personal computer; loan fees; study abroad costs; dependent care expenses; expenses related to a disability; and expenses for cooperative education programs.

Applying for financial aid is done each year, and it is recommended families do it around the same time as their Federal taxes (as early as possible, rather than waiting until April 15). Families can lay their tax forms and the FAFSA form side by side, and the FAFSA form refers to specific lines on the tax forms.

If there are multiple students in a family, each must apply and fill out the FAFSA form.

Common errors include not signing the form, and in the case of a minor, not having the parent sign. The second most common mistake is families reporting how much Federal tax was withheld instead of paid. The third most common mistake is families misreporting income in some way.

Another common misconception is families being afraid all their assets will be looked at in detail. Home equity, for example, is no longer considered. Additionally, families don't have to report assets including retirement nest eggs, as the government only reviews annual contributions to retirement plans rather than totals.

A variety of websites to reference includes (includes a list of financial aid definitions), and Students are warned that charges a fee; there is no fee to file through Financial aid information also is available at

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