Governors State University Alumnus Justin Smith graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in business that carried a special distinction.
“I did it debt-free,’’ said Smith, who applied for more than 250 grants and scholarships before he discovered the Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA).
Once he filled out the application, the proverbial floodgates opened and out poured grants and scholarships, including a few from GSU, that he would have been ineligible for otherwise.
Looking back, Smith wishes someone had told him about the one document every student needs to fill out before they start classes. He wishes someone had encouraged him to #DoTheFAFSA.
“When I arrived on campus that’s when I found out about the FAFSA. Knowing earlier would have saved me time and frustration,’’ Smith said.
This year, Jaguars can apply as early as Oct. 1, 2018 for aid to pay tuition and fees for the upcoming academic year 2019-20 (including summer school), ending August 2020.
The Office of Financial Aid is available to support students navigate the process that some find complicated and confusing. “We are here to help because the FAFSA is the most important step in the financial aid equation,” said Matthew Zarris, GSU Assistant Director in the Office of Financial Aid.
“If a student wants to be considered for federal and state aid—specifically grants, but also federal loans and work study opportunities —the FAFSA must be completed. Often, other aid—institutional and external —requires a FAFSA to be completed as well,” he said.
When to apply
The sooner students apply each year, the better, Zarris said.
Oct. 1 is the earliest date to apply for the upcoming 2019-20 academic year. The last day to apply for the current academic year (2018-19) is June 30, 2019.
Still, Zarris encourages students not to wait. In recent years, the state ran out of funding for the Monetary Award Program (MAP), which supports state residents who demonstrate a need. “Complete your application early to maximize your chances of getting the most aid,’’ Zarris said. “Last year, as many Governors State students who received the MAP grant, missed out because they didn’t apply early enough. That’s almost $5,000 in free money.”
Types of Assistance
MAP grants don’t have to be repaid but are only available to state residents who attend approved Illinois colleges and demonstrate financial need. Great news for Jaguars: these grants are not limited to traditional college-aged students. If all eligibility requirements are met, adult and non-traditional students may also qualify. MAP grants can be applied only toward tuition and mandatory fees.
Like the MAP grant, Pell grants also don’t have to be repaid. But these are federal monies awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree.
Last, Jaguars might qualify for a federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), a program administered directly by the financial aid office at select schools.
How to apply
Students should apply for the FAFSA online at www.FAFSA.gov.
Zarris warns some students don’t fill out the form completely and, inadvertently, miss the deadline.
“Go all the way to the end and hit “submit” and wait for the confirmation email,’’ he said.
For students who need extra support, Zarris suggests they visit the Financial Aid Office as a first stop.
“Remember, the first “F” in FAFSA stands for “free,” so never pay to complete the FAFSA,” he said.
Additionally, the Financial Aid Office will offer FAFSA Completion Workshops on Fridays in the Cube on the following dates:
Fridays from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. beginning Oct. 5, through Dec.14 (No workshop on Nov. 23).
Smith, now a manager in Aramark Corporation's Accelerated Leadership Program, said taking 30 minutes to fill out the FAFSA was an investment that paid off well. “Without it, the monetary burden of school would have been too much for me.”