You don't have to be well-off financially to go to college this fall -- there's plenty of assistance available. That's the main message Tri-City college administrators want to get out to prospective students.
They have another message -- don't dawdle over the paperwork necessary to get the assistance. Get it done now.
Students can start filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid on Jan. 1. The FAFSA is the first step toward getting any kind of tuition assistance, no matter what degree or program a student is pursuing.
There's no excuse for not get financial aid as long as a student gets the FAFSA filed as soon as possible, said Roy Garcia, director of outreach for Columbia Basin College.
The form helps officials determine -- and does so instantly when filled out online -- how much a student or family is expected to contribute toward college expenses. Filling out the federal form requires listing family income, expenses, college choice and planned course load. For students over 25, the parents' income is not considered.
To accurately supply family income, information from a tax return is needed. But that doesn't mean you have to deal with two separate mountains of paperwork right away.
"You don't have to have your taxes done to start your FAFSA," Garcia said. "You can start with last year's tax information."
But the FAFSA still is a daunting document, and college officials suspect that at least some students fail to apply for aid simply because the complex form is too much for them.
"We always say it's worse than filing your taxes," said Dick Pratt, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
There's help available to guide you through the process, Garcia said.
"Start by contacting your high school counselor, then follow up with CBC, WSU or whichever college you've chosen, to find out their financial aid deadlines," he said.
These aren't deadlines in the sense that you can't get anything once they've passed -- and that makes it easier to procrastinate.
The priority date, as it's called, for WSU and CBC is Feb. 15, Pratt said. "You have the best chance of maximizing your aid if you apply by that date," he said. "You can apply later, but most of the money will be gone."
And there's a lot of money to be had for early birds. Each year, the federal government provides more than $100 billion in student aid nationwide, Pratt said.
There are so-called Pell grants, which top out at about $5,500 per year, Pratt said. That's free money you don't need to pay back. Also available are subsidized loans, on which the government is paying the interest, and low-interest loans.
Nearly all students are eligible for some form of aid, Pratt said, but low-income students will be the first to get the need-based grants.
Students from families that make up to twice the federal poverty level are considered low-income -- that's $44,000 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But just about everybody can get something. Even families that make $140,000 are eligible for some support with college tuition, Pratt said.
As long as you get moving on the FAFSA, which fewer students seem to do these days.
"There's a casual attitude about deadlines, and students are applying late," Pratt said. "I blame the technology attitude -- everything happens quickly -- but FAFSA doesn't happen quickly."
Especially not these days. The online form may spit out a result instantly, but that's just a number that's then used by financial aid administrators to assign grants and loans.
And there are fewer of those administrators now, thanks to state budget cuts. At the same time, there are more students enrolling in college, also thanks to the recession.
There's other free money available too -- scholarships.
The foundations at CBC and WSU grant access to all of their available scholarships through one application, which students can get at each college's financial aid department.
There are other scholarships out there, but finding them can be confusing. Or rather, it used to be confusing.
Now there's thewashboard.org, an online clearinghouse for scholarships accessible to Washington students.
Current or future students fill out a profile online and -- voil -- the site spits out scholarships for which that student is eligible.
It makes the process a lot simpler for students, but it also makes sense for the groups trying to give away the money, said Austin DePaolo from the Washington College Access Network, which administers the site.
A lot of foundations have money set aside for scholarships but don't get any suitable applicants, he said.
"We know there's a need for scholarships," he said. "But if nobody applies, the foundations have a real hard time convincing contributors that the need is real."
Many of these scholarships require -- you guessed it -- filling out the FAFSA. And many have deadlines coming up in early spring. Another reason to tackle the form soon.
Two upcoming events will help with this.
CBC will hold College Goal Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 30, where counselors will help students and parents fill out the dreaded forms.
Students should bring income tax returns, driver's license, Social Security number and, for non-citizens, proof of legal residence.
If a student is a legal resident but the parents aren't, financial aid is still available. Parents who lack legal residency are often afraid to fill out the federal form, and they don't have a Social Security number to fill in on the FAFSA. But as long as the student has all the right paperwork, that's no problem, Garcia said.
Parents simply fill the box for the Social Security number with zeros and list their annual income.
For those needing extra help, there's another event at CBC -- College Night, 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 26. One-on-one counseling with administrators, department heads and counselors is available then.
An added bonus is that students who register for College Night and College Goal Sunday are entered into a drawing for a scholarship. Also, those who sign up to thewashboard.org and attend College Goal Sunday are entered for another scholarship.