FAFSA and Financial Aid Help in Tulsa

The applications are done, and your high school senior has plans in place for his or her post-secondary education. Just as a huge sigh of relief begins to escape your lips, it turns into a gasp of horror. How will you pay for it? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can help you find the answer.

The FAFSA is a document that colleges, trade and technical schools use to determine the amount of financial aid to award students. Completing the FAFSA can be done online and requires the same information necessary to file your federal income tax return. In the past, it was recommended that the FAFSA be filled out in January. A recent change now allows families to fill out the FAFSA as early as Oct. 1, using 2015 completed tax returns for the 2017-18 academic year. While families still have until the end of June to fill out the FAFSA, it doesn’t pay to procrastinate. Once  the limited amount of financial aid money is awarded, it’s gone, and it’s a first-come, first-serve game.

While many parents and students are familiar with the FAFSA, only an estimated 52 percent of high school seniors actually complete the application. Some families assume they make too much money to qualify for aid, others have concerns about privacy, and many simply lack adequate information about the process. As a result, millions of dollars in potential financial aid are left unclaimed each year. Fortunately for Tulsa area high school students and their families, a number of local organizations are working hard to change this.

ImpactTulsa partners with leaders from education, business, philanthropic, nonprofit, civic and faith communities to improve education for students living in and around Tulsa. On Jan. 8, ImpactTulsa will kick off a campaign to increase the number of students who complete the FAFSA with the goal of goal of connecting students with the financial support they need to pursue further education after graduation.

Monroe Nichols, COO of ImpactTulsa, noted that while existing programs like Tulsa Community College’s Tulsa Achieves and Tulsa Technology Center’s Accelerating Independence Scholarship provide a way for students to cover the cost of tuition, they are “gap-filler” programs. “What they essentially do is see all the things you qualify for and then the scholarship kicks in to cover the balance, so you’re not eligible for those unless you complete a FAFSA form to get an assessment of what you qualify for,” he explained.

“If we look at our community from an economic development standpoint, we know that about 60 percent of jobs are going to require some form of post-secondary education. We think about the FAFSA form as being the gateway to getting that education from a financial standpoint. Given that half of those kids aren’t completing it, it becomes a really, really important deal as you look at having a workforce that is prepared to take the jobs on today and in the future.”

For those families that decline to complete the FAFSA because they believe their income level would preclude them from any type of aid, Nichols stressed the fact that FAFSA connects students to more than just federal need-based scholarships. Work-study programs and scholarships specific to individual universities are also part of the mix.

“The big thing I always tell students, the thing we’ll continue to harp on, is that it doesn’t cost a dime to fill out the FAFSA form. It costs a little bit of time. It hurts you none, but it has the potential to benefit you a great deal. I don’t think people realize that,” Nichols said.

“We’ll begin by providing that broad level of community education around the FAFSA form, the benefits of filling it out, what it means for your student, and then what it means for the community,” Nichols said of ImpactTulsa’s effort to raise awareness about the FAFSA.

ImpactTulsa will also partner with communities of faith, high school college and career counselors, and even recent college graduates to reach high school students and their families.

Bixby Public Schools are also taking steps to increase FAFSA completion rates within their own community. For several years, the Bixby Public School system has provided high school juniors the opportunity to take the ACT college entrance exam for free during school hours.

According to Dr. Kyle Wood, superintendent of Bixby Public Schools, helping students complete the FAFSA is the next step to ensure students have the chance for further education after graduation.

“The other impediment to going to college has to do with ‘How do I pay for it?’; the ACT part is ‘Can I get in academically?’; and then the FAFSA form part is ‘Can I afford to go,’” Wood explained. “One of the things we’re going to do is bring it into the school,” Wood said. “The unfortunate part of the FAFSA is that it certainly requires a lot of information from the parents who are predominantly the ones who have to fill it out.”

To overcome the resistance of parents who may be unfamiliar with the FAFSA, Wood said that Bixby students will learn how to fill out the FAFSA at school. Faculty and administrators will also impress upon them the importance of the FAFSA for getting financial aid, grants, scholarships and waivers in college. Wood hopes that the students will then go to their parents and encourage them to fill it out. Students will be taught what information is required to complete the forms.

While Wood noted that some financial aid resources have income limits, they are not the only form of aid available. “There are specialized grants for health professionals. There are specialized grants for education if you want to be a teacher. There are specialized grants for fire, police and public safety. There are a wide variety of those that filling out the FAFSA will tell you in general what you might qualify for.”

When it comes to paying for higher education, this is clearly a case of  “what you don’t know can hurt you.” Fortunately, with resources like ImpactTulsa and Bixby Public Schools’ initiative, families and students living in and around the city of Tulsa should find it easier to finance a post-secondary school education.

“The FAFSA and the ACT ought to be a part of the everyday, normal package of a high school graduate,” Wood said. “We need to get to that point where everyone is doing it, and everyone is completing it regardless of what their post-high school plans are.”

To complete the FAFSA, visit www.fafsa.ed.gov. For more information on ImpactTulsa, visit www.impacttulsa.org.

JulieJulie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.

Categories: Education: Middle and High School, Financial Health