The reminder e-mail message arrives, and Jim Rozier groans.
It's FAFSA time again.
The father of one recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate with two other children enrolled there now, Rozier is well acquainted with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And he has a few four-letter words for the five-letter acronym.
"It's kind of like having your taxes done," said Rozier, of Raleigh. "It's something you just dread."
Scary as it may be, the application is the doorway through which the nation's college students can tap into federal and state assistance for higher education.
And enduring this annual exercise is no picnic, even after a recent streamlining.
As the weak economy has led more to seek financial aid, universities are pushing students harder to fill out the form. Doing so, they urge their students, may result in some unexpected aid money. The problem: Some experts say the form's daunting reputation and a belief that it's a waste of time hurt precisely the people it is intended to help.
The centerpiece of this effort is FAFSA Day, which this year will be Saturday. That day, trained counselors at hundreds of colleges, universities, State Employees Credit Union branches and other locations will help students fill out the forms. It's a free service.
The number of college students completing the form has increased steadily in recent years. Since 2006-07, the number of students attending or applying to all North Carolina institutions who fill out the form has jumped 60 percent. N.C. State University has seen 46 percent growth in that time. At Queens University in Charlotte, 111 percent more students filled it out last year than in 2006-07, and at Wake Technical Community College, the number spiked 178 percent.
Still, there's room to grow and obstacles to overcome, said Robbie Schultz, outreach manager with the State Education Assistance Authority, which administers student aid programs in North Carolina.
"People often look at the forms and are overwhelmed," Schultz said. "A lot of times, they don't know where to start. We don't want anyone to miss out on college if the barrier is completing the application."
The Web-based application is a few pages long. But it demands plenty of demographic and financial information - such as household income and tax return data - that many 18-year-olds don't have. And it delves deep. Were you on supplemental assistance? Did you receive food stamps last year? Free or reduced lunches? Temporary assistance or WIC, the supplemental nutrition program for women with children?
Rozier, the Raleigh parent, is a sales representative with Cisco Systems. A graduate of NCSU, he considers himself relatively Web-savvy and intelligent. Still, his head spins a bit each time he fills out the application.
"Do you have this? Did you qualify for this? I don't know," he said. "You end up answering 'No' to a lot of things you're not sure of. I would hate to see someone in their first year of college try to fill this out. It's intimidating."
At UNC-CH, the admissions office runs an advising program that sends recent graduates to 56 low-income North Carolina high schools to help students apply to colleges. These advisers spend a lot of time familiarizing high school seniors with the form and dispelling myths about college affordability.
"I hear kids talking all the time about wanting to go to school but they can't afford it," said Stephen Farmer, UNC-CH's director of undergraduate admissions. "They don't know money is available. Then they look at the FAFSA and say, 'Why should I spend hours filling this out?' "
To be clear, the completed application is no ticket to riches. But it is required for students to be eligible for Pell and other federal grant programs, as well as other state and federal grants and loans. It's an annual exercise; students must fill it out each year.
Because it's free, educators say it's always worth a shot.
"We'd like all students to fill it out," said Regina Huggins, financial aid director at Wake Tech, where about 10,000 of 22,000 students completed the form last year. "A lot of times, students make the assumption that they won't qualify."
Beverly Mangum wasn't sure what she was doing the first time she filled out the form three years ago. Left unemployed when her company went out of business, the 69-year-old went to Wake Tech for office administration courses. She hadn't thought about financial aid in half a century, and she ended up with a loan she didn't want.
"I found it difficult because I didn't understand what they were asking," said Mangum, of Raleigh. "For a novice, you might have difficulty."
Not all students are intimidated. Wake Tech student Felecia Ellis, 23, has gotten used to filling out the form and no longer considers it an imposition.
"Nobody likes to fill out papers, but it's there to help you," said Ellis, who lives in Knightdale. "If you follow each step correctly, you can fly through it."
For colleges that serve large low-income populations, students and their parents are familiar with the application - if not crazy about it. At St. Augustine's College, a small, private, historically black college in Raleigh, at least 95 percent of the school's 1,550 students fill out the form, and nearly that many receive at least some financial aid.
Still, officials there stay on the students to fill it out - even if they're transferring or leaving school, said Nadine Ford, the financial aid director.
"I always tell them to, even if you don't plan on coming back. Fill it out because plans change," she said. "It's better to have it done."
For needy students, the most likely source of free federal money is the Pell Grant, which is worth as much as $5,550 this year. (At St. Aug's, about 83 percent of students received Pell Grants last year.)
But for the many middle-income families that don't qualify for grants, the form offers only loans - a burden many are reluctant to take on. That's the puzzle facing Rozier, the Raleigh parent. He's tapping his savings - and eventual retirement nest egg - rather than burden himself and his children with years of debt.
"They're going to say you qualify for loans," he said. "But who wants that if you don't have to?"
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