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Now the hard part: Applying for college financial aid

Posted by Leslie Anderson  January 22, 2014 06:11 PM

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Seventeen-year-old Megan Grossi of Malden has filled out her college applications, applied early, and received acceptance letters from all four schools. And now the hard part — figuring out how to pay for it all.

Grossi, a senior at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, has received a commitment for an academic scholarship at her top choice, and is scouring for local and national scholarships.

Up next, she said, is filing the dreaded financial aid form that all students must complete to be considered for any federal aid such as grants, scholarships, loans, and work study. This year’s version of the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid was made available Jan. 1.

“Finances are huge for us,’’ said her mother, Carol Ann Desiderio-Grossi. “That’s why she applied to schools she really wanted and also state colleges. We aren’t quite sure how the finances are going to work out.’’

Grossi’s top choice, Ohio Wesleyan University, has already offered her a scholarship covering 60 percent of the $51,000 annual cost. Desiderio-Grossi said while the aid sounds like a lot, it still leaves a gap of nearly $100,000 over four years.

That’s why they will be among the many families filling out the FAFSA over the next few weeks.

Martha Savery, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority, said all families should take the time to fill out the FAFSA even if they don’t think they will qualify. Not only could a family’s financial situation change, she said, but the form is necessary for federal student loans, which are available to any student regardless of need. And it’s free.

“We always recommend that a family take the time to file a FAFSA,’’ Savery said. “It’s not to say it’s a breeze, but it’s not as difficult as some people believe it is once they get into the process.’’

Like college applications, deadlines for applying for financial aid vary from school to school, officials said, which means families must take careful note of the earliest date by which the form must be filed.

“Families really need to be on the ball to start the process,’’ said Savery.

Deadlines typically range from mid-January to March.

The other key is having all paperwork together before starting the process, Savery said. To start the form, families will need a FAFSA PIN, which serves as an electronic signature. This is available at www.pin.ed.gov. Parents and students will need to have Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, their most recent federal tax returns, the most recent W-2 or year-end pay stubs, untaxed income records, bank statements, and business and investment records.

“Being organized and having all the information there is really what makes it a simpler process,” Savery said.

She said it takes most families about an hour to complete the form if they have all their records together.

Savery said there are many resources available to help students and parents prepare and file the form.

In addition to resources online at www.mefa.org and www.fafsa.gov, families can receive personal assistance from financial aid experts at upcoming events organized by the state agency.

The resources help families answer questions about a variety of topics including assets, what records are needed, and how to link updated tax information. There are also answers to complicated family situations such as divorce, noncitizens, and emancipated minors.

The Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority helps organize FAFSA Day Massachusetts, a volunteer program in its 10th year providing free assistance to students and families seeking to complete the form. More than 20 FAFSA Day events will be held throughout the state, most on this Sunday or on Feb. 23, though the dates and times vary by location. A list of all locations is available at www.fafsaday.org.

“It’s scary for families, but the more they know and can learn about the process, the easier it becomes,’’ said Mary Beth Courtright, the director of financial aid at Massasoit Community College in Brockton. “The folks that help out are all there because they want to be there. They want to help families through the process and make it as easy as possible.’’

Massasoit will host a FAFSA Day event on Feb. 10 at 6:30 p.m. This is the second year Massasoit has hosted the event, which was previously held at Brockton High School. About 200 parents and students typically attend, Courtright said.

Elizabeth Hennessy, the director of counseling at Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, said families can walk into a FAFSA Day event not knowing where to start and leave having the form completed and filed. “It’s really streamlined,’’ Hennessy she said.

“We have lots of volunteers because it takes an army. We have students move people around the building and triage them based on their need.’’

Blackstone Valley’s event will be held Sunday at 1 p.m.

When families arrive, they will be asked questions such as whether they need an interpreter, have they started the form, or do they just have a few questions. Families just starting will get a brief overview and then can sit down at a computer and complete the entire form. If they want to finish later, they can save the information, Hennessy said.

Families with a question or two can go to FAFSA Express, where they meet individually with experts and leave when they are ready. Hennessy said the financial experts come from all over the state, which means families don’t need to worry about sharing personal information with people they know in their community.

“You can walk in with nothing done and leave with it done,’’ she said. “The thing that families like is that it’s free, they get access to financial aid experts, and it doesn’t leave that day. You can leave with resources so you can continue on.’’

Once families get a confirmation that the form has been completed, they will wait to hear from the colleges about award letters, which typically arrive in March, Savery said.

Until then, families like Grossi’s will search for ways to help pay for the hefty bills that start next year.

Desiderio-Grossi said between savings, loans, scholarships, and financial aid, she hopes to have enough money so her daughter can attend her dream school.

“It’s like putting together a puzzle,’’ Desiderio-Grossi said. “You piece it together until you get the whole picture. Once the FAFSA comes through, then we’ll know where we really are.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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College Bound offers news and advice on preparing, applying, and ultimately heading off to college. Send your ideas and questions to Leslie.Anderson@globe.com. More »
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