More than seven in 10 parents in the United States worry about paying for their children’s college education, and they worry about this more than they worry about any other common financial concerns, according to a Gallup Poll released earlier this year.

And according to a report this year from the College Board, the average price for in-state students at public four-year universities has increased by more than 40 percent over the last decade, while U.S. students have racked up close to $1.3 trillion in debt.

Given these runaway college costs, many college applicants will soon be sitting down to fill out a gargantuan form known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), to apply for federal grants, loans, and work-study funds to finance their college education. Completing the form can be a daunting task: the FAFSA now has 105 questions and 88 pages of instructions, so it’s not hard to imagine families that need financial aid being put off by the sheer length and complexity of the process.

This is where Debbie Meola and the United Way of Greater Mercer County (UWGMC) come in. Meola, a private consultant, is partnering with the UWGMC to offer an information session about completing the FAFSA this Wednesday, December 16, at 7 p.m. at the Hickory Corner Library in East Windsor. Titled “Hidden Sources of College Money: the Financial Aid Process,” Meola’s talk will demystify the FAFSA process to help college bound students apply for financial aid and scholarships. For more information, visit www.mcl.org/branches/hicbr or call 609-448-1330.

Meola, a Skillman resident originally from Champaign, Illinois, graduated from Winona State University in Minnesota in 1985 with a degree in journalism. She has what she calls a “non-typical career path,” starting out as a journalist for NBC News, moving on to work for different companies in corporate communications before transitioning to freelance writing for various corporations when she became a mother. She got into field of college advising about 10 to 15 years ago when her children began to look into applying to colleges.

“I just saw that there was a niche that wasn’t being filled. The way the college process has changed and evolved in the past dozen or so years has really made it difficult for average parents to keep up with,” says Meola. She started giving workshops on the college application process, supplementing her income by continuing to do freelance writing for corporations like Johnson & Johnson. “I’ve just grown this small business from a real grassroots approach looking at it from a parent myself,” she says.

Initially, Meola was hesitant to venture into the financial side of the application process because she is not a certified public accountant, but after she met Tarry Truit, the director of community impact programs at UWGMC, they partnered and piloted the FAFSA workshop three years ago.

The FAFSA “is a big hurdle for a lot of people because they either think they are not going to qualify for financial aid, so why bother? Or they think, ‘The form is way too difficult for me, and there’s no way I’m going to complete it, so I’m not going to it,’ “ says Meola. “So my approach is, I’m not a financial planner or an accountant or anything like that. It’s very practical. It’s very doable You can sit down and do this form in half an hour, and step by step I go through the practical nature of where this money is, where it’s sitting, and how people can access it.”

“It’s really not that hard. Everybody can do the FAFSA,” says Meola.

One misconception that parents have, Meola says, is they think their children should focus their energies on applying for private scholarships. But, as Meola points out, “the private scholarship niche only accounts for six or seven percent of money that kids get for college. Thirty-five percent that kids get come from the colleges themselves, about 40 percent from the federal government, maybe another 10 percent from the state government and then another 6 percent from employers and companies. If you look at that split, and if you don’t look at the FAFSA, you’re pretty much turning down more than half of the money. It’s like 80 percent that you’re passing up, so it’s a no-brainer that they have to do it.”

There are also important technical tips that people are not aware of, Meola says. “The aid formula punishes kids for having money in their name at rate of 25 cents per dollar, whereas if their parents have the money, it’s only five to six cents per dollar. And people don’t know that.”

“You don’t want your kid to appear too wealthy when they’re applying to college because the college basically thinks that any money the kid has is for college,” Meola says. With her own kids, Meola says, she has reduced the amount of money they have in their names. “Anything that has to be paid for junior or senior year”— whether it is paying for SAT prep tests, a senior trip, or buying a car — “we take all of that money from our daughter’s account, and we pretty much work down her account. Even if I plan to give that money back to her, there are simple things like that you can do. And that is all legal.”

Luckily for high school students, the FAFSA may be getting a little easier. In September, the Obama administratiojn announced changes to the application that will allow students to file their 2017-2018 application as early as October, 2016, rather than January, 2017 as would have been the case under previous rules. The idea is that by making the application available earlier, parents can avoid the rush to get their taxes completed. In addition, beginning with the 2017-2018 FAFSA, students will be able to report income information from an earlier tax year.

“The changes that they’ve made are very student-driven and are going to be good for students and families,” say Meola.

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