A couple examines their finances

5 Places to Hunt for Free College Financial Aid Help

Families looking for help on the FAFSA can turn to resources as varied as high school counselors and Google Helpouts.

A couple examines their finances

With a little time and effort, families can find ways to get free help filling out the FAFSA.

By SHARE

The clock is ticking for college-bound students and families to apply for grants, scholarships and loans for the upcoming academic year. If you find the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, intimidating, you’re not alone.

Families must fill out the FAFSA every year with their financial information, which is used to determine their eligibility for financial aid, including federally subsidized grants and loans and other sources of financial aid. It's an important first step in paying for college.

Each year, too many families either skip the FAFSA altogether or turn to high-priced consultants for assistance. With a little time and legwork on your part, though, you can file your FAFSA at it was originally intended – for free.

The following are five places to turn for help that won’t take money out of your pocket.

[See our FAFSA Q-and-A video.]

1. High school guidance office: Your high school guidance counselor can usually offer some level of assistance with the FAFSA. While their knowledge of the financial aid process may be limited, they often can point you toward free local resources in your community that specialize in this field.

2. Local college planning services: There are hundreds of college access and college planning programs across the country, run by community-based nonprofits, local scholarship providers, youth-serving organizations, private foundations, corporations and more.

Do a Google search for college access programs and Educational Opportunity Centers – part of the federal TRIO programs – in your state and check with your local library.

[Get FAFSA help from a College Goal Sunday event.]

3. State governments
: During FAFSA filing season, the departments of higher education in many states coordinate 1-800 hotlines, outreach campaigns, publications and additional resources aimed at easing the process of applying for financial aid. 

Try your state department of education’s website to find some of these resources.

4. FAFSA workshops and Google Helpouts:
This year, first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan are joining with the National Partnership for Educational Access, Get Schooled and Viacom to get the word out about FAFSA completion.

As part of the initiative, 50 national FAFSA experts from across the country will hold Get Schooled Google Helpouts to give users real-time, 1-to-1 video tutorials that deliver the personalized attention of a workshop but in your own home and on your own time. They’ve also created a handy national database of local FAFSA workshops.

5. Federal government: You can also always go straight to the source and get FAFSA help from the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Office. Their website offers a robust help center with FAQs, trending questions, and options to speak with a representative via phone, live chat or email. Students can also ask a question on Twitter.

With any luck, the FAFSA someday will be a little less painful. Improvements like the Web-based version of the form, which removes unnecessary and duplicative questions, or more recently the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which automatically populates the FAFSA with income information from tax forms, have shortened the average FAFSA completion time to about a half-hour.

[Learn which schools claim to meet students' full financial need.]

Duncan said at a recent FAFSA workshop that those enhancements helped propel a 33 percent increase in the number of students who have completed the FAFSA over the last five years. And more changes could be on the horizon.

“Someday, I hope students who qualify for financial aid based on their tax return will not have to complete a FAFSA at all,” he said.

Don’t hold your breath, though: Elimination of the FAFSA, if it happens at all, is likely years away. That’s cold comfort for families with children ready for college now or waiting in the wings, but free help from these resources can lighten the burden.