Crystal Garza, a freshman majoring in psychology at The University of Texas-Pan American, knows the importance of financial aid and applying for it early. For many students like Garza, receiving financial aid is their only opportunity to obtain a college degree.
"If I didn't receive financial aid I definitely would not be in college. I would be working to help my mom," Garza said. "I was always told to apply for financial aid early, so when I did, I got enough money to pay for all my classes. I didn't have to worry about anything."
Garza also works at the financial aid express lab, a service at UTPA that offers students help in completing the financial aid process. The lab hosts financial aid and loan workshops and provides students with loan counseling. Garza said by working at the lab she has received a better understanding of the financial aid process and encourages every student to apply early.
High school seniors and college students are encouraged to fill out the required Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by UTPA's priority deadline of April 1 or as early as possible. Jael Garcia, assistant director of Student Financial Services, said if students don't apply early there is a chance they could miss out on receiving certain financial aid rewards.
"There are certain types of awards that are limited in funding, meaning there is only a certain amount of money that the University gets," said Garcia. "Basically these type of awards are given out on a first come, first served basis, in the order in which the students apply. So applying early will increase a student's chance of receiving this money."
Garcia said they have recently seen in an increase in students who complete FAFSA forms and applying for financial aid early. She believes the economic downturn has made it necessary for students to turn to financial aid. However, with budget cuts threatening higher education, Garcia said it is more important now than ever to complete the financial aid process ahead of time because financial aid awards that are already limited in funds may become even more scarce.
"Pretty much the state is trying to reduce expenses and one of the things they are doing is reducing funds that go toward awarding students financial aid," Garcia said. "Limited funding and receiving the best financial aid package should be a student's drive in beginning the financial aid process early."
FAFSA applications are available as early as Jan. 1 every year. However, a student cannot complete the financial aid forms until the parent and the student have completed their income tax returns. Garcia said completing this part of the process early is only the beginning. Later in the process, there may be additional documents required from the student and parent that can cause a delay in award information if left to the last minute, which is another reason why she encourages students to finish it early.
Students and parents can fill out the FAFSA on their own, but Garcia said if they are unsure about any portions of the application it is important to find help. High school counselors can usually assist students in filling out their FAFSA. Most schools host events during the day or at night, in which staff from different colleges and universities help students and their parents fill out financial aid applications. UTPA also offers assistance through their express lab. The lab is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., except on Wednesdays when the lab closes at 6 p.m.
The express lab is also host to various events such as College Goal Sunday, which will be held February 27 from 2-4 p.m. The event is open to the public and hosted by staff from the University's financial aid office who will be available to assist parents and students with their FAFSA.
"It is likely, depending on eligibility, that students who apply early will receive the best award packages," said Garcia.
Garza said she is a student who has experienced how financial aid can make a difference and hopes to continue encouraging others to apply early and work toward receiving financial aid.
"Take in mind that if you don't apply early and get financial aid you're not going to be able to come to school, and if you do it's going to be very stressful thinking about what you have to pay," said Garza. "Financial aid has helped me out a lot, so it can benefit others also if they apply early ."