Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

When college is within reach but the cost is not

Families line up for financial aid counseling during College Goal Sunday

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Michelle Phipps (center), a senior at Springbrook High School, and her mother, Juana Hidalgo (left), get tips on the college financial aid process from Sherri Thompson, director of financial aid for Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus, during College Goal Sunday. More than 100 families came to the event for help when applying for aid and scholarships.
More than 100 families looking for help with paying for their children’s higher education came out on Sunday to Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus to get advice on the college financial aid process.

College Goal Sunday, a national event that has been held in Montgomery County for the last six years, offers families free, on-site professional assistance filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which determines students’ eligibility for financial aid.

‘‘Everybody needs help,” said Melissa Gregory, the college’s director of student financial aid. ‘‘If you don’t apply, you won’t get anything.”

On the main floor of the Charlene R. Nunley Student Services Center, dozens of volunteers sat at tables for one-on-one counseling, while upstairs, others walked around computer labs set up to help with online applications. Translators were available to families who spoke Spanish.

Gregory said the event started in Indiana in 1989 as a way to encourage low-income students to fill out the applications.

‘‘The people most likely to qualify for the money weren’t doing the forms,” she said, adding that many families with whom she talks are unfamiliar with the process and do not realize just how much aid is available.

In addition to federal and state grants, Gregory said, students can also apply for scholarships offered by the schools they want to attend and for Pell Grants offered by the U.S. Department of Education. Many local officials and organizations also offer scholarships, she said.

Lavonne Flowers of Silver Spring, mother of a sophomore at Bowie State University, said she’s gone to the event for several years in a row and the counselors have made a difference.

‘‘We got our aid and scholarship money by their help,” she said. ‘‘I had support — someone to help answer my questions, just knowing I was on the right track.”

After knowing where to look and how to apply, Flowers said her son earned scholarships and aid from Bowie State, the state of Maryland and the office of her state delegate.

Gregory said the deadline for most Maryland state scholarships is March 1, so students who haven’t applied should do so soon. College Goal Sunday kicked off ‘‘Financial Aid Awareness Week” at Montgomery College. Financial aid offices at each campus are holding workshops and handing out pens and notepads to remind students of the deadlines. Gregory’s office also sent postcards to all enrolled MC students and county public school seniors.