BANGOR, Maine — The black, spiral-bound notebook is just a few months old, but already shows signs of wear with a few dog-eared pages and a creased cover.
Vicky Grotton bought the notebook last fall to help her and husband Chris Grotton stay organized as their oldest child, a senior at John Bapst Memorial High School, began to navigate the college application process.
The thought of that process, especially filling out financial aid forms, was intimidating for the Grottons and daughter Lindsay, who live in Glenburn.
“I was jotting everything down in my notebook, trying to stay organized,” Vicky Grotton said Monday, with the notebook sitting in front of her during an interview in the John Bapst library.
Many Maine families likely feel the same way — a little worried about whether they have the right information, wondering if they qualify for aid, hoping they haven’t missed a deadline and confused about exactly how to fill out the Free Application for Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, which is the required federal financial aid form.
With deadlines looming, including some that are less than a week away, the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) is offering assistance on Jan. 31 via a nationwide program called College Goal Sunday.
The free program, which will run from 2 to 4 p.m. at 22 sites around Maine, offers up financial aid officials and other qualified professionals to help students and families, including nontraditional students, with the forms, line-by-line if necessary.
Nine locations have computer labs so that students and families can complete and file the application that day.
FAFSA forms can be filled out by hand and mailed, but FAME recommends doing them online to prevent delays through the mail and at the federal processing center. Nationally, 98 percent of students and families complete the application online, according to FAME default prevention specialist Mary Dyer, who sat with the Grottons earlier this week. That number is similar in Maine, Dyer added.
Students and families attending Sunday will be entered into a drawing for one of 20 scholarships worth $500, to be awarded in 2010-2011.
FAME estimates 500-600 families have been assisted in the six previous years of College Goal Sunday in Maine.
The FAFSA is the free application used to determine a student’s eligibility level for federal Stafford Loans, which must be repaid and are available to undergraduate and graduate students. Depending on the need demonstrated, the loan may be subsidized, which means the student is not responsible for interest while attending school at least half-time and the principle is deferred, or unsubsidized, which means the principle is still deferred but the student must pay interest on the loan.
First, colleges and universities have vastly different deadlines as early as Feb. 1 — the day after the workshops — to as late as May 1.
Second, some schools offer awards on a staggered basis, which means the earlier a FAFSA is submitted, the more aid may be available.
Although there is no charge for College Goal Sunday, there are businesses that do charge for assistance. FAME’s hope in promoting College Goal Sunday is that students and families will not pay for assistance, which starts at $79.99, on one FAFSA-assistance Web site.
“That is the Web site,” said Angela Dostie, FAME’s manager of outreach and default prevention, during a phone interview last week. “I had another student go to the wrong site [recently], and you can’t get your money back.”
Lindsay Grotton heard the same message at financial aid information nights and from Colleen Grover, her high school counselor at John Bapst.
“[Guidance counselors] made it really clear that we shouldn’t have to pay for anything, and if we pay for something, it’s a scam,” Lindsay Grotton said.
The Grottons started the information-gathering process in October, when they attended a financial-aid information night and college fairs.
“We basically got that urgency throughout those events, that when January comes you sit down and do the FAFSA as a family,” Vicky Grotton said.
In order to complete the forms Sunday, families need to bring along a few key pieces of information. There is also a worksheet, available at fafsa.gov, to give students and families an idea of what kind of information will be asked of them.
The most useful document is a family’s most recent tax return. A copy of the 2008 tax return is useful if a family hasn’t yet filled out its 2009 return. The Grottons were in that situation earlier this year, and used their 2008 tax return.
“We anticipated doing our [2009 taxes] perhaps earlier than in the past so that we wouldn’t have to go in [to the FAFSA application] and make any corrections, but all of our information didn’t come in time,” Vicky Grotton said. “We thought we’d get the FAFSA done now and then if there’s a huge change we can make a cor-rection.”
Not all of a family’s assets are taken into consideration. Assets in a qualified retirement account and the value of a family’s primary residence, for example, are not part of the financial aid determination. FAME also recommends students and families fill out the form no matter what they believe their financial situation to be.
“The calculation of eligibility is based on so many factors,” said Martha Johnston, FAME’s director of education products, via phone. “I think a lot of people hear things from well-intentioned family and friends and neighbors [about eligibility], but in all truthfulness until you go through the process you don’t know. Every family situation is unique. You might make more [in wages], but you might have a bigger family to support.”
Colleges and universities also use FAFSA data to determine eligibility for their own merit-based money. A loan approval also can provide some peace of mind in a turbulent economy.
“If something happens, somebody loses a job, income changes, you’ve at least got that eligibility there,” Dyer said.
Vicky Grotton, who teaches sixth grade at Glenburn School, and Chris Grotton, a Maine State Police lieutenant based in Augusta, are willing to accept any financial aid they can get for Lindsay’s education.
Chris Grotton said he’s concerned about leaving Lindsay with a huge amount of debt after she’s finished with school.
“Every little bit helps, and every couple thousand dollars students can reap from scholarship opportunities and financial opportunities becomes very important,” he said.
Lindsay Grotton already has been accepted to the University of Maine. It was her first and only choice, and her parents are both UMaine graduates.
“I’ve always just had this thought that I would go there,” she said. “I’ve been around there, I’ve been to the hockey games, so I like the school spirit.”
Lindsay Grotton began work Sunday, Jan. 3, on her FAFSA forms. When she reached the financial questions, she turned to her parents for help. The Grottons e-mailed Dyer with a few questions, then finished the forms and e-mailed them.
The whole process, the family estimated, took 1½ hours.
In addition to being impressed with the initiative his daughter showed in starting early and filling out much of the form on her own, Chris Grotton also was encouraged by how simple the forms were to complete. He had expected the process to consume a weekend.
“When Lindsay pulled up the form and started going through it, it was remarkably easy,” Chris Grotton said. “It’s amazing how independent she was. She had the college application done; she had the FAFSA application virtually done. Our role in this was very minimal.”
The family will have to wait a few months to learn how much of an award Lindsay Grotton can receive — information Vicky Grotton likely will keep in her notebook, which the family could reference again in a few years.
“We’re hoping in the next four years, when it’s our son’s turn to apply for college, this whole thing will be turned into a game,” Chris Grotton joked.
“If it’s a video game we’re all set,” Vicky Grotton added.