Last year, $24 billion in financial aid went unclaimed because students and parents failed to fill out the Free Application for Student Aid.

According to the the College Access Network FAFSA tracker, Alabama was one of the worst, ranking 43rd for FAFSA completion.

Alabama's poor ranking doesn't surprise Tracie Sutton, guidance counselor at East Limestone High School. Although she has seen a steady climb in the number of high school seniors applying for the FAFSA over the eight years she has worked at the school, she thinks that number should be higher.

Laura Lou Smith, guidance counselor at Athens High School, reported only 41 percent of her students completed the FAFSA last year.

Several obstacles prevent students from applying. Both counselors said many of their students believe their parents make too much money so there is no point. Often, students and their parents are overwhelmed by the process, while some students simply don't know what the FAFSA is.

Smith said she encourages all of her students to fill out the FAFSA, regardless of their parents' income, because most public post-secondary institutions require that a FAFSA be complete before they will release scholarship dollars. Additionally, a student cannot take advantage of work study programs or federally funded student loans unless they have completed the FAFSA.

She said right now, students are scrambling to fill out their applications in time to meet critical deadlines, like Calhoun Community College's March 1 scholarship application deadline.

“Plus, it's free, there's no harm in trying, and you just might find out that you do qualify,” Smith said. “A lot of times, people don't take into account the number of siblings in the home and if anyone else in the family is in college. That affects the outcome.”

Sutton and Smith understand why students can be overwhelmed by the application process. That is why they rely on Karlton Stephens, an advisor with the Huntsville-based nonprofit North Alabama Center for Educational Awareness.

Throughout the school year, Stephens visits all of the county's high schools to help students and families fill out the FAFSA. As long as a student has the appropriate documentation, the process only takes about 30 minutes.

Yesterday, he was at West Limestone High School, where he helped 14 students fill out their FAFSA applications. Next week, he'll be at AHS.

“It can be a complicated process,” he said. “Some people would rather have help from someone who does it all the time.”

Although Stephens focuses on low-income families and first-generation college applicants, he extends his services to all students.

Smith noted she has seen an 18-percent increase in the number of students who filled out the FAFSA since last year. She attributes the jump to recent changes in the FAFSA. Students no longer have to wait until Jan. 1 to apply but rather can apply for the next school year as early as Oct. 1.

Before, the FAFSA was based on a parent's previous year's tax return, which made it difficult for students to compile the appropriate documents in time to fill out the FAFSA and still meet college scholarship and application deadlines.

Students and parents can apply for the FAFSA at https://fafsa.ed.gov.

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