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FAFSA college financial aid form: An E for easier

DAVIE, Fla. — Many have called the long and complicated college financial aid form "The Beast," but this year's format is a bit tamer.

The online version of the standard Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is easier to use. That's good news for college students, as the recession has sent demand for financial aid skyrocketing.

Students must fill out the form for federal Pell Grants, federal student loans and many types of need-based state aid. For students entering college this fall, the deadline to be considered for state money is May 15.

While the six-page, 100-question paper version hasn't changed much, the online version has been redesigned to eliminate irrelevant questions. So if you answer that you're single, you won't be asked about your spouse's finances. Women no longer have to say whether they've registered for Selective Service, a requirement for men only. Students who are older than 24 don't have to sort through questions about their parents' incomes.

The FAFSA Web site has also been redesigned to include more tips for helping students navigate the process.

"There are some big changes," said Terri Roher, a college and career adviser at College Academy, a high school on Broward College's Davie campus for advanced students. "The form is smarter than it's been before."

Last year, the federal government set a five-year timeline to reduce the form's questions by almost half, said Patricia Christel, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for Sally Mae, which administers federal student loans. These are the first changes.

"The good news is it's easier than ever," Christel said. "Perhaps better news will be coming over the next few years."

Historically, the form has been considered so intimidating that many needy students would not fill it out. About 41 percent of all undergraduate students did not fill out the forms in the 2007-08 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Last year, the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state's public universities, estimated that about 22,000 students with incomes low enough to quality for Pell Grants during the 2005-06 year failed to fill out the forms. As a result, they missed out on about $24 million in federal aid.

"Many families have an aversion to numbers," said David Bodwell, director of financial aid at Palm Beach State College, west of Lake Worth. "Many people don't feel equipped to fill out their own tax returns, rightly or wrongly. Definitely, the perceived complexity of the FAFSA has been a deterrent."

Roshon Renaud, 19, a student at Broward College, said he found it confusing. He had to get a neighbor to help him fill out the form.

"It could have been simpler from the beginning," Renaud said. "Everything you have to put down. All the forms you needed. It was presented in a way that wasn't that clear."

In the past year, high schools, colleges and universities have pushed students to fill out the forms.

Broward College is holding a free FAFSA seminar from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday in Building 19 of its Davie campus, 3501 SW Davie Road. Prospective students and their families can get help with the forms and even submit applications directly if they bring in their 2009 tax returns or W-2 forms.

Whether it's because of these efforts, the recession, or both, more students are completing the forms than in past years, several schools said.

Roher encourages all first-time college students to fill out the FAFSA form, regardless of income.

"You may never do it again and you may only be eligible for loans, but you don't know that in advance," she said. "And it doesn't cost you anything."

FINANCIAL AID Q&A

What is FAFSA?

Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students must fill this out to receive federal Pell Grants, federal student loans and many other forms of federal and state need-based aid.

Why is it considered a hassle?

The printed form is about six pages long and asks more than 100 questions. Students must have their W-2 forms or completed tax returns and other financial data to complete it. Students find many questions on the printed form confusing and irrelevant.

How has it changed?

For the paper form, four questions were deleted, three added and five reworded. The biggest changes are on the online version, which 95 percent of students use. Students will have to answer only questions that pertain to their circumstances. For example, a student who is single no longer will see questions related to a spouse's finances.

How can I apply?

Go to www.fafsa.ed.gov.

How can I get help with the form?

Call 800-433-3243 to receive help from FAFSA. Broward College is also holding a free seminar from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday in Building 19 of its Davie campus, 3501 SW Davie Road. Help will be available in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Several websites also provide help, including, Sallie Mae (salliemae.com/fafsa) and FinAid www.finaid.org/fafsa). Several experts say students should not pay websites or companies for help with the FAFSA because it's designed to be a free application.

What is the deadline?

The deadline to apply for federal aid for the 2009-10 year is June 30. For the 2010-11 year, it's June 30, 2011. To be considered for state money, students attending college in fall 2010 should fill out FAFSA by May 15 for the 2010-11 year.

How is need determined?

The U.S. Department of Education uses a formula that considers the family's income, household size and number of family members attending college.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, college experts.

(c) 2010, Sun Sentinel. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.