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Opinion | Free money for college? Fill out free FAFSA financial aid form to see

If you’re a class of 2022 parent/guardian or you know a high school senior, you’ve probably been hearing about the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form can be the gateway to an affordable college education, but to many parents, the idea of sharing private financial information can be intimidating.

Brandon Wardlow
Brandon Wardlow is a college adviser at Port Huron High School serving with AdviseMI, an AmeriCorps program overseen by Michigan College Access Network. (Courtesy photo)

I’m here to tell you there is nothing to worry about.

As a college adviser, I hear a lot of misconceptions about the FAFSA. One that I often encounter is people thinking that filing the FAFSA means a student is taking out a loan. Filing the FAFSA is a way to see if students qualify for a variety of financial aid options, including something known as a Pell Grant. This year’s maximum grant award is $6,495 a year, and it’s renewable while a student is taking college classes. These grants never have to be repaid. Last year, Michigan students left $89 million in federal Pell Grants untapped by not filing the FAFSA. There are also loan options that open up with filing a FAFSA, but they are not automatic and not required!

I also see a lot of parents and guardians who become concerned with their tax information being used to help create their students’ FAFSA profiles. I remind them that their information doesn’t become public. The only people that see their financial information are the Federal Student Aid office and the IRS, and they are only working with the information the parents/guardians have already provided on their tax returns. The financial information is used to calculate the student’s eligibility for Pell Grants and other aid.

I’ve worked with quite a few students who have said something like, “I would love to go to college, but I just can’t afford it.” Many of those same students, after completing the FAFSA, discovered they were eligible for full Pell Grants. This, alongside other opportunities like the Tuition Incentive Program, Promise Zone scholarships and other types of need-based financial aid, can be the difference between getting a postsecondary education or not. And a college degree or certificate can be the difference between being stuck in a dead-end job and gaining access to well-paying, high-growth industries.

I’ve never heard a student say “Darn, I regret filing that FAFSA.” It’s free, and it doesn’t commit you to anything. I’ve witnessed more than a dozen seniors shedding tears in my office when they found out there was a way for them to afford an education after high school. I’ve seen entire skilled trades certificates be covered thanks to the FAFSA, opening up paths to good careers and economic mobility. I’ve had students tell me they went to community college for free or had all of their university tuition covered by financial aid opportunities that came from filing the FAFSA. If these things are possible, why not at least give it a chance?

This spring, students should complete their FAFSA online as soon as possible. To maximize access to state financial aid, including the Michigan Competitive Scholarship or Michigan Tuition Grant, students should submit their FAFSA by Michigan’s priority deadline, which was recently extended to May 1. If you have questions, contact a high school counselor, college adviser, or local college/university. Students can also visit the College Access Virtual Assistant for information about financial aid resources.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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