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'This is prime time' for students and families to apply for financial aid

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College is one of the more significant investments a student, and their family, may have to make. Tuition, books, meals, and potentially housing are all costs that have to be considered to attend any post-secondary education.

"Moving on to college or post-secondary education costs money. It's not like high school where it's free," said Frank Green, financial aid outreach counselor at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu.

"You've all heard the horror stories about prices at college, and they're not as bad as what the media plays it up, but it still is an issue of paying. And that's where FAFSA kicks in," Green said.

According to federal data, roughly half of all Hawaiʻi families of high school seniors last school year filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

But that's only the beginning of the financial aid process.

"It's not the only document, but that's what needs to be done first, in order to start playing the game," Green said.

So what does FAFSA unlock?

Most notably, it opens the first layer of financial aid — Pell Grants.

"Pell Grants are federal dollars that are made available only to undergraduate students, and, oftentimes, to those who display the most exception," said Farrah-Marie Gomes, vice president of student affairs at the University of Hawaiʻi.

In order to receive a Pell Grant, students and families have to complete the FAFSA. The amount a student gets from this grant is based on a family's income and how it corresponds with a federal financial table.

According to Gomes, roughly 34% of UH students received some form of a Pell Grant.

"The other thing about the Pell Grant is that it is a grant," she said. "Students are not required to pay that back . . . and so those are always the best to get."

However, not every student will be able to get, or receive enough support from a Pell Grant. Some students will have to search for other aid options.

Scholarships can be the next best option.

Gomes tells HPR these are usually provided and determined by private donors to be used for a specific purpose or topic.

"The criteria varies. So some of them may be need-based, and a donor wants to give a student who are in financial need," she said. "Other times, they are merit-based. And that's really where the grade point average, or the involvement in research or presentation comes into play."

UH and its foundation offers more than 850 different scholarships that students can qualify for just by filling out a single application.

"It's called the UH Commons Scholarship Application. It opens each October, and then closes March 1 of every year," Gomes said.

The application is lengthy, mostly because administrators have to ask nuanced questions to be able to determine what students can qualify for, Gomes said.

"However, it's one application, and we have many students who will actually be awarded multiple scholarships each year based on that process."

There is also institutional aid, where the university will support a student's education. At UH, there are pots of funds for Opportunity Grants and achievement scholarships.

Despite an array of financial options and scholarships, Gomes said there are still misperceptions about scholarships and grants.

"One of the misperceptions about scholarships is 'I don't qualify. I'm an average student and I don't qualify.' Oftentimes, students may disqualify themselves simply because they don't recognize all of the things that they do," Gomes said.

She tells HPR that extracurricular activities, such as community service, can qualify students for scholarships and grants.

In order to take advantage of scholarships and grants for the next school year, now is the time to apply.

"This is prime time. Most of the applications will be opening already," Gomes said.

Other financial aid options include work-study programs and student loans. However, these options also require a completed FAFSA in order to be eligible.

Another option is a 529 savings account. That is an investment account allowing families to save over years in order to pay for education. However, families have to start early in order to maximize the benefits of this option.

More information about financial aid options can be found at the University of Hawaiʻi's Student Affairs office or by visiting collegeiswithinreachhawaii.com

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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