A new study says hundreds of thousands of college students who may be eligible for federal financial aid don't get it for a simple reason -- they don't apply.
The study released yesterday by the American Council on Education, which represents colleges and universities, says that half of the 8 million undergraduates enrolled in 1999-2000 at institutions participating in federal student aid programs did not complete the main federal aid application form.
Many were well off, and correctly assumed they wouldn't get aid. But the study found 1.7 million low- and moderate-income students also failed to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Two-thirds of community college students did not apply for aid, compared with 42 percent at public four-year colleges and 13 percent at private colleges.
The study concludes that 850,000 of those students would have been eligible for a Pell Grant, the principal federal grant for low-income students.
The findings underscore a point often made by educators: Even as college costs rise, students often miss financial aid opportunities because they aren't aware of how the system works.
''It's frustrating when you know someone could be eligible and they just don't do it for various reasons," said Tammy Capps, financial aid director at Shawnee Community College in Ullin, Ill., where about 900 of the 2,500 students receive Pell Grants.
She said the complexity of the form is often a reason students don't apply.
''We'll even help them fill it out," she said. ''But we have to talk to them face-to-face to give that information, and that doesn't always happen. They don't think to call and ask."
Few students with more than $40,000 in annual family income get Pell grants, said Jacqueline Smith, director of
But they can get other federal aid such as subsidized student loans. And FAFSA forms are often the first step in applying for other types of aid, such as support from states or their schools.
The study acknowledges that some poorer students might skip FAFSA forms because they line up adequate funding elsewhere. But Smith said many would have ended up with more aid if they had filled out the form.
''Everybody assumes the money is for someone else," Smith said, adding that focus groups her organization has conducted reveal wide misconceptions about financial aid.
''We talked to middle-class parents who said the money's only available if you're really poor, and poor parents said you had to have a perfect SAT score."
The government has worked to simplify the FAFSA form, but it still runs four pages and several worksheets. Smith said the form's complexity is probably an issue in some cases.
Department of Education spokeswoman Susan Aspey said officials hadn't had the chance to read the full report, but noted that the department launched a public relations campaign last year to increase awareness of federal financial aid.
It also has reached out to minority groups underrepresented on American campuses, she said.
Aspey said that about 9 million students will receive federal assistance this year in some form, and about 75 percent of all undergraduates whose parents' incomes are less than $30,000 filed a FAFSA.
The study also indicates many students suffer by turning FAFSA forms in late. There is no deadline for federal aid like the Pell Grants, but many state and institutional sources require FAFSA submissions before April 1.
The study found that 55 percent of those who filed a FAFSA did so after that date -- and the later the submission, the lower the percentage of applicants who received aid.
''It's not a 5-minute exercise to fill this thing out," Smith said. But, she said: ''It's worth the hour or two it takes."