Need help paying for college?Your first step should be filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It's an online or paper form provided by the federal government where you list your family's financial resources. It's then sent to financial aid offices at colleges of your choice.Submitting it can lead to federal aid, including Pell Grants and direct student loans. But it also unlocks state and institutional grants and loans, said Kristina Tirloni, spokeswoman for TG, a public nonprofit in Austin created by the Legislature to facilitate lending and promote education access."Many families think they make too much money to qualify for financial aid," Tirloni said."But if you want institutional aid, like scholarships or state aid like the Texas Grant or the Texas B-on-Time loan program, you have to fill out the FAFSA."The state's Top Ten Percent Scholarship -- up to $2,000 for students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class -- also requires a FAFSA.Most students in Texas don't fill out the form, however, Tirloni said. During 2011-12, just 43 percent of high school seniors in the state -- 44 percent in the Metroplex -- completed the FAFSA, according to TG's report, "State of Student Aid and Higher Education in Texas," released last month."Don't let your financial picture keep you from going to college," Tirloni said. "FAFSA is the first step in the process."Ninety percent of students who finish the form attend college, according to the Education Department.And low-income students who complete it are 235 percent more likely to attend, according to the Central Texas Student Futures Project.Cost is the No. 1 problem facing high school seniors thinking of attending college, said Clint Bond, spokesman for the Fort Worth school district."When we survey our students about their decision to pursue higher education, financial concerns become the top issue," he said.In partnership with local colleges, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and other groups, the school district is holding help sessions at high schools this month and next to show families how to fill out the FAFSA, college applications and other forms.So far, more than 100 students have attended a session, a "definite increase" over last year, he said.A new FAFSA completion search tool developed by TG shows that many local students have yet to complete the form this year. Of the 21,600 students in Tarrant County scheduled to graduate this spring, just 1,842 had completed the form as of Feb. 1. Deadlines for some schools are fast approaching.The University of Texas at Austin has a priority deadline of March 15. UT Arlington's deadline is April 1.TCU has a May 1 priority funding deadline and recommends that applicants submit their FAFSA by March 15.Tarrant County College has a May 1 deadline.Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net
Where to get help
The Fort Worth school district will hold nine more sessions on how to fill out college and financial aid applications. All are in English and Spanish and run from 6 to 8 p.m., except the session at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School, which is 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Southwest High School -- Tuesday
Paschal High School -- Thursday
North Side High School -- March 5
Western Hills High School -- March 7
Carter-Riverside High School -- March 19
Eastern Hills High School -- March 21
Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School -- March 23
South Hills High School -- March 26
Polytechnic High School -- March 28
Financial aid tips
Go online: FAFSA can be completed at www.FAFSA.gov. Just follow the prompts and explanations. You can submit the form online or by mail. Check out the FAFSA4caster, an online
estimate of your aid and expected family contribution (EFC).
Get automated: The IRS data retrieval tool transfers federal tax data into your FAFSA for speed and accuracy. Look for the prompt when filling out the FAFSA. Your tax return must have been completed by the IRS two weeks prior.
Get your PIN now: To sign your FAFSA online, you need a personal identification number, which takes two or more days to receive.
Get help online: Adventures in Education (www.aie.org) has videos in English and Spanish. You can download TASFA, the state financial aid application for undocumented students, but it must be printed and mailed in.
Get help by phone: The Federal Student Aid Information Center hotline is 800-433-3243. The Texas Financial Aid Information Center is 888-311-8881. It begins in Spanish, then English.