Welch extols FAFSA improvements

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Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) addresses a group of students at the Center for Technology, Essex on Monday afternoon. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) addresses a group of students at the Center for Technology, Essex on Monday afternoon. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

College-bound Vermonters leave millions on the table each year by not filling out federal forms for student aid.

That was the message delivered by Scott Giles, president and CEO of Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, who joined Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Vermont’s education leadership to highlight ways to match money with more college hopefuls at a Monday news conference at Essex’s Center for Technology.

FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form families fill out to apply for federal grants, loans or work-study funds. Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, it helps provide more than $150 billion to 13 million students each year.

“It’s been like a nightmare,” Welch said of the FAFSA, which, according to its website, takes up to 55 minutes to complete the first time.

Welch, Giles and Vermont education secretary Rebecca Holcombe said students can now complete the forms in half the time.

Families can use last year’s tax return instead of estimating income, and applications open October 1 — three months earlier — to help start planning and comparing college costs.

State leaders hope the process will pay large dividends for Vermont students, only half of whom filled out the applications last year, Holcombe said.

“Don’t be one of those kids,” she told the crowd. “Make sure you complete this form. You might be surprised at what kind of support is out there waiting to help you.”

Representatives from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy’s offices and Vermont State Colleges chancellor Jeb Spaulding and CTE director Bob Travers also spoke at the event, which coincided with Gov. Peter Shumlin’s “Fall for FAFSA,” a statewide challenge to grow FAFSA applicants.

Workshops and support sessions will take place in high schools across the state, with one planned for Colchester High School on October 26.

A number of campuses will offer free walk-in assistance on October 17-21, and VSAC will host evening call hours October 18-20. A list of locations can be found on www.vsac.org.

Some colleges are even offering a scholarship for one student who files the FAFSA this month and plans attend several local colleges and universities.

Students can also apply for state grants by answering just a few extra questions. VSAC gives out $19 million in these grants each year to over 13,000 full- and part-time students, Giles said.

The changes are important steps toward making the financial aid process more convenient, Sanders and Leahy said in a joint statement.

“For years, the increasing cost of college has resulted in far too many qualified high school students deciding against attending college,” they said.

Welch, who said he graduated from law school with only $5,000 in debt, called rising higher education costs and the lack of affordable options one of his generation’s “most outrageous failures.”

“It’s a pretty big shock if you’re a young person getting out of college and you owe the equivalent of a mortgage on a home,” he said.

The good news is it’s now easier to apply for financial aid to help lessen the burden. The bad news?

“It takes away an excuse,” Welch said. Instead of worrying about how to pay for college, students can focus on finding and pursuing their passions, he added.

To illustrate its ease, CTE student Samantha Martelle and her mother, Sharnel, filled out the application during the news conference.

After about 50 minutes, Travers asked the Martelles how they were doing. Welch and education leaders waited anxiously.

“It’s complete,” Sharnel Martell said. “We actually completed it for my other son too, who’s going to be starting it in the fall as well.”