The rising cost of education has been a hot topic in the media for several years now. The cost of education has outpaced the rate of inflation several times over.
According to a Forbes.com article, the consumer price index rose 112 percent between 1985 and 2012 while the average cost of a college education rose almost 500 percent during that same period. While financial aid becomes increasingly important for many families, it is also one of the more confusing and misunderstand aspects of college for most families.
Financial aid comes in many forms, but the overwhelmingly largest percent, especially for a small community college such as Robeson Community College, comes from the federal government in the form of Pell Grants.
Most schools begin their academic year in August. An academic year for Pell Grant purposes runs from July 1 of one year until June 30 of the following year. In the past students had to wait until Jan. 1 to apply for federal financial aid for the fall of that same year. Also, in the past students had to wait until their and/or their parents’ tax returns were completed for the previous tax year so that they would have the requisite information needed to complete the free application for federal student aid.
Two major changes were made to the process this year. First, the application for this coming fall — 2017-18 academic year — became available last October, so many students have already completed it. Also, information from the 2015 tax year can be used to complete the 2017-18 application as opposed to applicants having to wait for the completion of the 2016 tax year return. Hopefully, this will simplify the process and allow students to complete the application in a timelier manner.
If you or your child plans to attend a post-secondary institution this fall and you have not completed the free application for federal student aid, it’s not too late to do so. Grab your 2015 tax year returns and visit FAFSA.ed.gov to begin the process. If you encounter difficulty in completing the forms, contact the financial aid office at the school to which you are applying for assistance.
If you use a paid tax preparer, he or she may be able to help you as well. If you purchased tax return preparation software to assist you with your return, you can probably print a report from that software that will assist you with the application. Consult the users’ manual or the help documentation of the software for details. Also, check with your local high school and post-secondary schools about potential financial aid workshops that are held periodically for the express purpose of assisting applicants with the process.
One issue that you may encounter was recently reported by the New York Times. The Department of Education, which is responsible for the application, and the Internal Revenue Service have collaborated in the past to offer a feature known as the “Data Retrieval Tool,” which would allow users to transfer their tax return information electronically from the IRS’s database directly into the application.
In just the past week or so, that feature has been temporarily suspended without much notice from either the Department of Education or the IRS. According to the Times, the feature is not expected to be available for at least several more weeks. The work-around for this issue is for the applicant to manually enter the 2015 tax year information into the application.
Many parents and students do not complete the application thinking that the family earns too much money to qualify for Pell Grant. That may be true, but students who may not qualify for Pell may be eligible for institutional funds or private scholarships and often the organizations granting those funds also use Pell data to determine who their beneficiaries will be, so everyone who enrolls in a post-secondary institution is encouraged to complete the application. If you have questions about the application or the financial aid process, contact the financial aid office at Robeson Community College at 910-272-3352.
Dennis Watts is the public information officer for Robeson Community College.