File early with chance for more grant money

DETROIT — Parents and students who will need financial aid to pay for college this year were able to start filing necessary federal paperwork Jan 1.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can be filled out and filed electronically or by mail.

The FAFSA is used to determine the amount of grants, scholarships, work-study awards and loans a student may qualify for to pay for college.

An estimated $50 billion will be awarded for the 2003-04 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

About 10.9 million applicants filed the FAFSA for the 2002-03 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

The FAFSA is the starting point for almost all student financial assistance programs, according to Sallie Mae, the country’s leading provider of education funding.

Although experts at the Department of Education say students who are eligible for federal aid will get it, it is important to file the FAFSA as soon as possible to meet deadlines. Many colleges use the FAFSA as part of their application for nonfederal aid.

“With more than $90 billion in financial aid available, including aid from schools, it’s vital that students file applications correctly and adhere to deadlines,” said David Cooper, managing director of e-commerce for Sallie Mae.

Ruth Jordan of Detroit said she will be at her computer as soon as the application is available. With tax records on hand, she said she has logged onto the FAFSA Web site and received a personal identification number so she can file for her son, who she hopes will be accepted to Princeton.

Her son Venias Jordan Jr. plays football, basketball and baseball for Cody High in Detroit and has a 3.5 grade-point average. Jordan, a divorcee who works as a housing aid for the Inkster Housing Commission, is confident her son’s schooling will be paid for between financial aid, athletic scholarships and the several academic scholarship applications he has submitted.

But still, she said she knows now is the time to be diligent about the search for college money.

“Parents, we have to take responsibility,” said Jordan. “Have a rapport with your child’s counselor. … a nd if you don’t have a computer, go to the library. They have computers, somebody to help you and the forms (are) right there.”

Within 72 hours of filing online, Jordan will get the Student Aid Report, which will tell her how much federal aid her son qualifies to receive. Those who mail in the paperwork should get a response in about two weeks.

Also, filing electronically can help avoid delays because the software allows for on-the-spot corrections.

An estimated 8 percent of paper applications are returned for errors, according to the Department of Education. For the 2002-03 school year, about 58 percent of FAFSAs were processed online.

“We encourage people to apply online because the error rate is so much smaller,” said Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid programs.