5 Things You Need to Know about Financial Aid

Unfortunately, when many people consider whether to start college, they never make it past the answer to their first question: "How much is tuition?" No one becomes a firefighter for the money, so it is not likely that you have the extra cash lying around to go back to school. Add to that the current economic situation, which is causing many fire-rescue-EMS departments to reduce or eliminate tuition reimbursement, and it may not seem like now is the time to enroll in college. While it would be wonderful if everyone could receive financial aid to attend college, we know that this is not the case. However, many types of aid are available, and if you don't apply, you will miss out.

The gateway to federal financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some programs, like the Federal Pell Grant Program, are need-based, but even if you have a full-time job, do not let this stop you from completing a FAFSA. Eligibility is based on more than income; other factors, such as the number of dependents you have, are considered. Sometimes, state aid and scholarships will require you to file a FAFSA. For example, in South Carolina, lottery funds are available to eligible residents of the state. None of the requirements for lottery funds are based on income, but you must have completed a FAFSA to be eligible.

The website for completing the FAFSA is www.fafsa.ed.gov. You will need to gather your tax information and bank account information. If you are under 24 years of age and have no dependents, the federal government will most likely require your parents' information as well. There are some exceptions to this, so if you are unable to get your parents' information, talk to a financial aid advisor at your school. Always talk to the financial aid advisor if you have questions or concerns. Never let rumors or a lack of understanding keep you from obtaining financial aid or be the reason for deciding not to attend school.

The following list is only a brief overview, but includes five important pieces of information to consider:

     1. Remember that the first "F" in FAFSA stands for free. There are several "lookalike websites" that will charge you to file your FAFSA. Be sure you use the official website, www.fafsa.ed.gov.

     2. Check with your school for deadlines and apply early. As soon as you complete your tax returns, you can complete and submit your FAFSA. Even if you will not file your tax returns until the April deadline, you can file your FAFSA if your tax forms are complete. Financial aid is awarded for the school year — fall, spring and summer. Yes, that means the time to start thinking about financial aid for the fall 2010 semester is February 2010. If you wish to start school in the spring semester, check with your school's financial aid office and this should be possible. While enrolled in school, renew your FAFSA each time you complete your tax returns.

     3. Apply for admission to the school you plan to attend. When you complete the FAFSA, you will be asked to list each school to which you want your results sent. If you do not have an application on file with a school, then the FAFSA information will be received, but the school may not be able to download the information without an existing application for admissions on file. Consequently, this will delay the process.

     4. Read! Read! And read some more! Then follow up. With advanced technology comes more ways to communicate. You may receive some correspondence by mail; however, most colleges are using communications programs such as CampusCruiser. Once you have applied to a college, you are often assigned an e-mail address within this program. Check this e-mail, any alternate e-mail you may have listed on your application and your regular mail. Read all messages carefully to see if you are required to take some sort of action.

     Your school may require you to provide copies of the information that you used to fill out your FAFSA. Provide this information as soon as possible. Once your financial aid is awarded, you will need to accept it. Sign your award letter or accept electronically (depending on your school's requirement) as soon as possible. If you are accepting/receiving loans, you will receive information on loan counseling. Read these instructions and complete your loan counseling as soon as possible. Are you starting to see a pattern here? The quicker you provide the information needed, the quicker your financial aid department can complete your file.

     5. Remember that the FAFSA is for federal financial aid. You will be applying for the Pell Grant, loans and work study when you file your FAFSA. If you are not eligible for this aid, remember that you may qualify for other aid that is available from other sources. Check with the financial aid advisor at your school to learn about state funds that may be available, as well as funds available through your school. Also, if you are currently working or volunteering as a firefighter, check with your department, local chiefs' association and state firefighters' associations.

     Money is at the forefront of everyone's minds these days. The cost of tuition may seem like an unnecessary expense that you cannot afford right now. Tuition for college is an expense, but it is also an investment. It's an investment in you and your future. Take the time to find out if there is assistance out there for you before you decide not to attend due to expense. Finding out if you are eligible for financial aid from the federal government or other sources will take time and effort on your part, but you may find the payoff to be well worth the effort.

BONITA WATTERS is a student services coordinator at the Brashier Campus of Greenville Technical College in Greenville, SC. She began working with the college's Fire Science Technology program during its developmental stages in 2003. Greenville Technical College now offers a certificate in fire service and an associate's degree in applied science with a major in fire science. Watters may be contacted at bonita.watters@gvltec.edu.