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Published: Thursday, 10/21/2004

College help unclaimed

WITH rising college costs, it's hard to believe that some college students eligible for federal money either don't complete a federal student aid application or file too late.

The American Council on Education says that an astonishing 4 million students in the nation's undergraduate schools in 1999-2000 failed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form with which students obtain federal financial help.

About 1.7 million of those students were in low- and moderate-income brackets, and 850,000 of them could have received a Pell Grant, the primary federal grant for low-income students.

The council argues that low-income students may not complete the FAFSA forms because they obtain plenty of money through other means. That's great, if true, but we're skeptical. Seldom do college students boast having too much money.

Of course, well-off students don't get aid. But even students from families whose income is more than $40,000 can get subsidized student loans, which they have to repay, though slowly and at lower rates of interest. Students don't have to repay grants.

So why aren't college students completing FAFSA forms and filing them on time? Most institutions set April 1 as the deadline, but more than half the students who filed for FAFSA did so after that date. There is no deadline for Pell Grants, but the later students file, they less aid they get.

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry both mentioned Pell grants in the last presidential debate. Though they disagreed on how much Pell grants actually provide, the discussion should at least remind the public of their availability.

It's not exactly a breeze to complete the four-page forms. But they are doable in an evening or two, with a little determination. And the process only has to be completed once a year. Without question, it's worth it.

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