Doug Vore, left, associated director of financial aid for Montgomery County Community College, helps a family Saturday during FAFSA Days.

Doug Vore, left, associate director of financial aid for Montgomery County Community College, helps a family during FAFSA Day.

POTTSTOWN PA – Student advisers at the West Campus of Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) were working hard over the weekend to ensure that what’s happened to free money for school tuition in Florida isn’t repeated here.

Newspapers in the Sunshine State last month reported that thousands of Florida university students missed out on about $24 million in free tuition assistance during the 2005-’06 school year because they failed to complete federal financial aid forms. MCCC Associate Director of Financial Aid Douglas Vore is determined not to let the same thing happen on his watch.

Vore, college Counselor Michael Ondo, and several others were on hand Saturday (Feb. 7, 2009) at a second-floor computer room in the college’s South Hall, 101 College Dr., to guide students and parents through the tribulations of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The 11-page document, available in print and online, is the application on which almost all need-based college grants and scholarships rely.

The problem: too many people think FAFSA is an acronym for “formidable” and “forgettable.”

Filling it out can be daunting. It requires detailed tax records, bank account information, and estimates of future family earnings. That’s why MCCC and other colleges across the country this month are conducting what they call FAFSA Days, where expert help is immediately available as families work on their forms.

Plenty of local people have taken advantage of the offer. Sessions were held in Blue Bell and Pottstown, and Vore said both morning and afternoon appointments had been filling in Pottstown. “We’ve had a good number of families come though,” he added, and as evidence swept his arm across the room where about 20 people were clustered around computer screens in groups of two, three and four.

College confection.

College confection.

Vore and Ondo didn’t intrude into their conversations, most of which involved finances that folks usually want to keep as private as possible. Instead, they simply made themselves available to answer questions or provide suggestions. The college tried to add comfort to the experience by serving free coffee and a three-layer cake decorated with the words “Filing your FAFSA is a piece of cake!”

As they finish a FAFSA, most students have their eye on what is known as a Pell Grant. Pell Grants are awarded based on expected family contribution, the cost of attendance to a college or university, and whether a student is full- or part-time. The expected family contribution takes into consideration family income, size of the family and the number of family members, excluding parents, attending post-secondary institutions.

During the 2009-’10 school year, Pell Grants can be worth up to $4,731 per student, The Palm Beach (FL) Post newspaper reported. They do not need to be repaid.

  • Completing a FAFSA now becomes even more relevant in light of the nation’s proposed economic stimulus package. Once hashed out between President Obama and Congress, it could increase next year’s maximum Pell Grant award by up to $500, to $5,350, starting July 1, according to an Associated Press report Sunday. “That’s the biggest increase in history and would cover three-quarters of the cost of the average public four-year college,” the AP said.

Besides the challenge of the FAFSA, students aren’t always aware that free money from Pell and other programs is available. They may assume they don’t qualify because they are working, or that they’re ineligible if they receive other scholarships or financial aid.

None is true, the Palm Beach Post said, and without Pell and other grants students may be forced to take out more in student loans.