Financial aid orientations assist students filling out, filing forms
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Mel MelÚndez
Nearly two dozen college-bound students throughout Arizona can score a "touchdown" of sorts, sharing more than $16,000 by simply attending a financial aid orientation.

Sunday marks the kickoff of the ninth annual College Goal Sunday, which will assist students in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the 2005-06 school year. The two-hour forums are hosted by the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education at 23 sites, including schools in Phoenix, Flagstaff, Glendale, Mesa and Tucson.

The goal is to promote filing the FAFSA, the first step in securing federal grants, scholarships, loans and work-study earnings. Nearly 8 million students nationwide failed to file the form last year, eschewing thousands of dollars in potential aid.

In Arizona, $200 million is available in federal Pell Grants alone. Still, students feel discouraged from filling out the 16-page form, which has 103 questions and requires students' and parents' records of money earned, bank statements, mortgages, investments and income tax returns, said Michael Rooney, the state agency's chairman.

"It can be intimidating because it's so long and requires so much information," said Steven Alvarado, a sophomore at Phoenix College, one of four College Goal Sunday sites in Phoenix. "I think it's great they're holding these events to help students out."

The forums feature line-by-line explanations of the FAFSA form, with counselors also addressing other financial aid concerns. Students can attend at any site, regardless of where they choose to enroll, said Ellen Neel, director of financial aid for Glendale Community College.

Most of the sites, including Glendale Community, will feature bilingual counselors to assist with the FAFSA, which also comes in Spanish.

"Many of our kids are first-generation college students. That coupled with (English) fluency issues could make college seem unattainable," Neel said. "So we walk them through the form to break through those barriers."

Outreach to Latino families is critical because of the state's Latino high school dropout rate: nearly double the 15 percent national Latino rate.

To encourage participation, sponsors Waddell & Reed, a financial planning firm, USA Funds, a non-profit guarantor of student loans, and the Lumina Foundation for Education, a private higher-education advocacy group, are awarding a $200 scholarship and a $500 college-savings account at each forum.

"Names will be drawn for that and other prizes, including concert tickets, cellphones and CDs," Rooney said.

At the end of the day, it's about reminding families that college graduates earn about 73 percent more, or $1 million more, over a lifetime than those with only high school diplomas, and that getting the funds to reach that goal starts with the FAFSA, he added.