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February 10, 2014

Riding out the Student Aid Storm

CORBIN — By LeeAnn Cain / Staff Writer

A free workshop is being offered Monday to help students seeking financial aid for college.

The workshop on completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be led by Outreach Counselor for the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA) Keith Ritchie.

Ritchie will help both people who have yet to apply for financial aid and those who applied before they filed taxes and need to update their forms. He will also answer questions and assist those who are confused about the FAFSA.

Ritchie expects a mixed bag of students — mostly high school seniors, but also older people who are choosing to go to college a little later in life. The majority of workshop participants will likely be families of seniors in high school, he added.

“I just want to help as many people as possible,” Ritchie said.

Financial aid authorities agree that it’s critical to get the FAFSA in early, although high school students have had difficulty with FAFSA workshops held by local colleges because of this year’s inclement weather, Andra Butler, director of financial aid at Union College, said. As a result, the number of stragglers is a little higher this year.

While there is no specific deadline for the form, state grant money runs out quickly as it is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. Assistant Director of University of the Cumberland’s Financial Planning Office Karen KcKinney said current students at the college receive emails and cards to remind them to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible due to limited state grants.

According to Butler, the money for Kentucky’s CAP grant ran out Feb. 1, while the money for the Kentucky Tuition Grant is expected to run out Sunday. Butler said these are Kentucky’s two major grants. These dates are estimates, so stragglers might still receive some grants from the state, Butler explained.

“It’s always so difficult to tell when the money is going to run out,” Ritchie said.

To get money from these grants, students are advised to complete their FAFSA by early- to mid-January. Many local high schools have worked with local colleges to host events for their seniors in January to beat these deadlines.

According to McKinney, Butler and Ritchie, it is possible to file the FAFSA before taxes are filed. Butler says the one misconception that can seriously hurt a student’s chance of filing in time is the misconception that you have to have your tax return to file. Students can estimate their families’ income and tax returns and file the first day of January to maximize their financial aid.

Of course, Ritchie will help those who have done just that Monday; the workshop isn’t just for those who have yet to file. Those who have filed before receiving their tax returns may need to update their application now that they have their taxes.

Financial aid authorities also agree that one of the most important things to emphasize about the FAFSA is that it’s free. Ritchie and Butler warned students and parents about any site that requested payment for filling the application out. Those sites are scams, Ritchie said. The only website for the FAFSA is www.fafsa.gov.

“There are a lot of scam sites,” Ritchie warned.

Another problem students may face is a rejected FAFSA. According to McKinney, students with a rejected application cannot receive financial aid. The most common reasons for rejection are a forgotten signature or inaccurate information, McKinney said. She added that if the student applied early in the year and the rejected FAFSA is corrected before they are loaded into the system at KHEAA, their grants are still locked in.

Ritchie said he will not be helping students with rejected applications. They must discuss the matter with the financial aid advisors at the school they plan to attend.

Ritchie said it is best to complete the FAFSA online. The results are processed quicker and are more accurate.

According to Ritchie, the online form tailors its questions based on answers to previous questions, ensuring that each individual has the most accurate application possible.

“The web application gets better and better every year in my opinion,” Ritchie said.

Ritchie says it is important to fill the FAFSA out as soon as possible to “make sure everyone has a fair chance” at state grants and minimize the amount of debt students have to take on.

Those who are late filling out their FAFSA will still receive federal grant money, which does not run out, Ritchie said.

Even if students do not receive state grant money, hope is not lost. According to Butler, many colleges have “institutional funds” that will help fill in the gaps left by a lack of state grants.

The number of events promoting the FAFSA is increasing, Ritchie said. The College Goal Kentucky Initiative is sponsoring more events across the state. Although Monday’s workshop is not affiliated with the College Goal Kentucky Initiative, Somerset Community College held a FAFSA event on its London campus earlier this year. According to Ritchie, there are more than 30 events throughout the state for financial aid.

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