Free money for college. Every year, the federal government hands it out. Every year, thousands of Miami-Dade students miss out.
What stands between graduating seniors and thousands of dollars in Pell Grants? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a few pages of a family’s personal and financial information that proves too intimidating for many.
Last year, Miami-Dade students missed out on $18 million in federal aid simply because they didn’t fill out the application, said Sharon Krantz, executive director of the Division of Student Services for Miami-Dade schools.
“That’s free money. They don’t have to pay it back,’’ she said. “Money towards college.”
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Now is the time fill out the FAFSA. Due to the state May 15, it qualifies students for up to $5,700 for college based on need and other factors, as well as work-study opportunities and student loans. The forms are also used to dole out state money such as the Florida Student Assistance Grant, and many colleges and universities use the FAFSA to assign financial aid, too.
The sooner a student applies, the better. According to the Florida College Access Network, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization, students who submit their FAFSA earlier get more money. That’s because, in part, scholarships like the Florida Student Assistance Grant are first-come, first-served.
“It’s a good idea for any and everyone,” Krantz said. “There are only opportunities.”
Maria Sahwell has been on a mission to make sure students get their forms in. As the college adviser at Miami Beach Senior High, the school has had among the highest FAFSA application rates with 73 percent last year.
There’s no single reason why more students apply at Beach high than most other schools, but the FAFSA “Marathons” that Sahwell holds every year, paid for by the non-profit Ed Fund, are a big part.
At 6 p.m. on a weeknight, parents made their way to Beach High in their work clothes, with folders and notepads tucked under their arms. They and their kids filed into a computer lab to tackle the FAFSA. They’d come with their tax forms, social security cards and lots of questions.
There to answer those questions were Sahwell and a team from Miami Dade College headed by Monaud Daphnis, financial aid director for the Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami.
“A lot of folks get scared applying for financial aid,” Daphnis said. “But being here, it’s a calming presence. We’re here to help.”
Among the first questions on the FAFSA is one about citizenship. In South Florida, it can be a major stumbling block, and one reason why counties like Miami-Dade, which cater to large immigrant populations, can probably never expect a 100 percent FAFSA completion rate.
At Beach high, one student learned he couldn’t apply because he was here on a foreign investor visa, and doesn’t have a social security number. Another wasn’t sure how to answer because he was brought here illegally by his parents as a child, but has temporary deferred action under an executive order by President Barack Obama. One Cuban mom pulled out a stack of green cards — she brought the entire family’s, just in case.
“Everyone’s situation is entirely different,” Daphis said.
Serena Beze, 18, came to a FAFSA marathon on her own to make sure she had filled out everything correctly.
“I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so no one knows about it,” she said.
From the time Beze entered Miami Beach Senior High as a freshman, the FAFSA has been on her mind. Sahwell, the college adviser, makes it a part of the school’s culture. Sahwell visits classrooms, hands out cheat sheets and posts updates on a special Facebook page just for seniors.
“Our teachers really try to push it,” Beze said. “They’ve been saying it every year: ‘FAFSA. Fill it out.’”
Now she’s a senior, with hopes of attending Florida International University to study hospitality. Paying for college is completely up to her. Beze’s mom is on disability and her dad is a cab driver.
“My parents told me from when I was young that I would have to pay,” she said.
At the end of the night, Beze got good news: she qualified for the full amount of federal aid. She’ll add that to $6,000 she has already received from FIU while chasing after more scholarships.
Troy Miller, associate director for research and policy for the Florida College Access Network, suspects there are many more students like Beze in Miami-Dade. Statewide, 59 percent of students live in poverty and 59 percent of students who apply for FAFSA are eligible for Pell Grants, Miller said.
In Miami-Dade, more than 70 percent of students live in poverty but only 34 percent submitted FAFSAs. Although that may seem paltry, Miami-Dade had the second-highest completion rate in the state and the highest among large, urban districts.
Miller said research has shown most kids don’t fill out the FAFSA because they assume they won’t qualify. But he called it “step number one” in figuring out whether college will be affordable.
“Academic preparation is really important for college and career readiness, but overlooking the financial component, especially for low-income students, can really make or break their ability to access post-secondary education,” Miller said.