Cliff Peale reports:
More high-school seniors completed their federal financial aid forms before mid-January this year, but, in most cases, less than one-third of the senior class.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, opens the door to any federal grants or loans, plus any need-based aid from universities.
The application can be filled out starting Jan. 1. There is no formal deadline, but money in some aid programs can run out if the form is submitted too late.
In the first 17 days after filing started at the beginning of the year, 2,179 Greater Cincinnati high-school seniors had completed the form, including 110 seniors at Mason High School, more than any other high school in the region. That’s up 3.7 percent from the same time last year, an Enquirer analysis of the most recent federal Education Department data shows.
Always critical, the aid form’s importance has catapulted over the last half-dozen years as student-loan debt topped $1 trillion, more than $29,000 per borrower and accounting for 9 percent of all consumer debt.
High schools pester and prod both students and parents on the importance of completing the online form – to be found at https://fafsa.ed.gov – and completing it early.
“The end of January is pretty important, just to see that the money’s still there,” said Jason Mott, junior/senior guidance counselor at Covington Catholic High School. “That federal bucket dries up pretty quickly.”
Suzanne Carr of Mason was planning to complete the form late last week for her twins, both seniors at Mason High School.
“We’re doing our taxes tonight, hopefully, so we’re waiting until we get that done to do the FAFSA,” said Carr, an accountant. “The colleges we’ve applied to have all been contacting us to tell us, ‘Hey, don’t forget to fill out your FAFSA.’ ”
Counselors tell students not to wait, but to estimate taxes, complete the FAFSA and update numbers later.
Among other things, an Enquirer analysis of forms filed by students at 117 local schools shows:
- The number of applications was up at 41 of the 117 schools, down at 33 and unchanged at one. At 42 of the schools, not enough students had completed a form to calculate a change.
- Students at Mason High School completed 110 forms, more than any other high school in the region. But that is 15 percent fewer than last year and only about 14 percent of the school’s 787 seniors.
- Only 11 Woodward Career Technical High School students have completed the FAFSA, up from just five a year ago.
- •Mother of Mercy High School on Cincinnati’s West Side has nearly tripled its completed applications so far, to 30 out of a class of about 120 seniors.
- For students at Purcell Marian High School, completed FAFSA forms fell to 12 this year from 21 a year ago. Batavia, Middletown and Monroe High Schools also saw drops.
- In Northern Kentucky, 101 Simon Kenton High School students students completed the form by Jan. 17, more than any other Northern Kentucky high school and up 55 percent from a year ago.
- Covington Catholic High School also saw 55 percent more students complete the form early, 53 compared to 34 last year.
- St. Henry District High School and Walton-Verona High School saw the biggest decreases in students completing the form, down 26 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
Most federal aid programs depend on the FAFSA form, said Caroline Miller, senior associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Cincinnati. The Pell Grant program for low-income Americans is an entitlement in which funds do not run out. But money in other programs, such as work-study grants, will be exhausted, she said.
There are other reasons to fill out the form. If a parent is laid off, for example, having a completed FAFSA on file makes it much easier to get additional loans or grants. “People often can qualify for some aid program they don’t realize,” Miller said.
Miller said more than 80 percent of UC’s incoming freshman each fall eventually fill out the FAFSA.
Parents say the process is scary. For many, the “expected family contribution” often produces shock because it’s so far out of their reach.
“The process scares them,” said John Beischel, a counselor at Princeton High School. “Somebody asks them to do their FAFSA, and, after they get the result, they may not trust the whole system.”
In response, schools are reminding students earlier and earlier. At Simon Kenton High School in Independence, counselors meet with every senior individually about filling out the application.
Counselors at Mason High School are considering starting to talk about college financial planning in elementary schools, counselor Sally Clark said. “We tell them it’s very important,” Clark said. “Some people just think that, if you do really well in school, you’re automatically going to get all of this money for college. That’s just not the case.”
Tips for filling out FAFSA
- • Go to www.fafsa.ed.gov, NOT www.fafsa.com, a pay-to-complete site that helps you fill out the form.
- • Make sure the student and one parent obtain a PIN to sign the Free Application for Federal Student Aid electronically.
- • If you are divorced, list the parent with whom the student lives at least 51 percent of the time. If there is joint custody, you can pick which parent to use. If remarried, be sure to include the stepparents’ income and assets.
- • Gather last year’s tax return, end-of-year pay stubs or W-2s, and statements from all non-retirement investment, savings and checking accounts.
- • You do not need to wait until your taxes are completed to start the FAFSA. Use estimates and then go back and make corrections. Or use the IRS data retrieval tool on the FAFSA to put in your tax return.
- • Do not include the equity in your home, the value of your retirement accounts – 401(k), IRA, etc. – or the cash value of life insurance or annuities as part of your total asset value.
- • Report the value of the student’s savings and checking accounts as the student’s assets – not the parents’ assets.
- • Report the value of 529 plans or Education IRAs as assets of the parents.
- • Prior to submission, check your numbers by viewing the “FAFSA Summary.”
- • Once you hit “submit,” print off that page, because it shows your expected family contribution and an estimate of any federal aid you may receive.
Source: Dan Bisig, College & Beyond LLC
Here’s a look at the change in completion rates at the 10 local schools with the most applications through Jan. 17.
School City Forms 1-year change
- William Mason High School Mason 110 –15.4%
- Simon Kenton High School Independence 101 55.4%
- Boone County High School Florence 93 50.0%
- Campbell County High School Alexandria 87 13.0%
- Dixie Heights High School Fort Mitchell 78 –7.1%
- Notre Dame Academy Park Hills 62 26.5%
- Highlands High School Fort Thomas 56 14.3%
- Covington Catholic High School Park Hills 53 55.9%
- Walnut Hills High School Cincinnati 52 8.3%
- Milford Senior High School Milford 49 22.5%
Sources: U.S. Department of Education and Enquirer research
To look at the FAFSA completion rates at all 117 schools, visit Cincinnati.com.