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Students urged to pursue financial aid early

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

As college enrollment has grown, so has the demand for student financial aid, according to college officials.

The University of Georgia grew by 2.1 percent this fall -- or 705 students -- to a record high of 34,885 enrolled students, according to a report published in November by the University System of Georgia.

"We're seeing the impact of the economy, because we've experienced an almost 40 percent increase in our Federal Pell Grant awards compared to this time last year," said Jay Mooney, associate director for operations in the Office of Student Financial Aid at the University of Georgia.

Mooney said the over-the-year spike in Federal Pell Grant awards is directly related to the nation's economic situation, as parents and students face job cuts or reduced incomes. He said those students who were once ineligible for federal assistance in years past are fast becoming eligible as a result of economic conditions.

More high schoolers entering college are also applying for federal financial assistance, Mooney added.

"The economic downturn has left many families in Henry County, and all across our country, struggling to pay for college," said Rick Marinaccio, lead school counselor at Ola High School.

Many families are choosing to send their students to smaller, less expensive institutions, Marinaccio said, because of the financial burden of increasing tuition.

Gordon College, in Barnesville, recently reported a growth of 18 percent for this year, over last year.

"I believe the primary factor that has led to the growth at Gordon -- and other colleges -- is financial," Marinaccio said.

Clayton State University, a four-year college in Morrow, has also reported an all-time record enrollment for this year, with 6,594 students.

"The major factor is the downturn in the economy," said John Shiffert, spokesman for Clayton State. "In tough economic times, college and university enrollment tends to go up across the board. It's a well-established pattern dating back at least 15 years that I know of."

Mooney, a financial aid officer at the University of Georgia, advises students to start planning to finance their college education as soon as possible.

"The big thing we always tell students is, do the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] early," Mooney said. "Complete the application, and respond as quickly as you can to any communications you receive from your school."

Mooney said students and prospective students should complete the 2010-11 FAFSA as soon as they can, as it becomes available online Jan. 1. Initial processing, he said, takes an average of about three to four work days.

"The key is to always apply early and know what you're going to get in financial aid," he said. "On the FAFSA, students are asked to list the schools they would like the FAFSA released to. That way, all of those financial aid officers at the schools will receive the data."

The University of Georgia has also experienced an increase in student loan applications since the economic downturn, according to Mooney. He encourages students to pursue other sources of income in addition to student loans, such as scholarships, work-study programs, or working part time.

"I suggest students try to work part time and during the summer," Mooney added. "However, anybody that works part time, be sure not to overload yourself academically. Balance your responsibilities, and always ask if you don't understand something [about your financial aid]. Contact your financial aid officer. Never assume anything."

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On the net:

Free Application for Federal Student Aid: www.fafsa.ed.gov