College can be expensive, and most families need some help paying for it. To get that help, they have to fill out something called the FAFSA -- "the Free Application for Federal Student Aid." The FAFSA is important. In 2014, Florida high school grads left unclaimed more than $167 MILLION in federal grant money -- which they wouldn't have had to pay back -- because they didn't turn in a FAFSA.
The financial aid office at Polk State College's Winter Haven branch held an event recently to encourage more students to apply for aid. And if there's a way to make it fun to fill out the FAFSA -- this was it. First, a motivational speech by former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Frank D. Murphy.
Then, a raffle.
The raffle prizes, words of encouragement -- and cupcakes -- helped get the roomful of students and parents in a good frame of mind for the work ahead. They were at Polk State College to get help in filling out the FAFSA. They'll need it to apply for federal grants, loans and work-study funds.
"I've heard that it's overwhelming," said Marcia Conliffe, Polk State's director of financial aid. She says this is the third year that Polk State has sponsored these FAFSA educational events.
Stacey Jenkins is listening to the presentation with her son, Clay, a senior at Mulberry High School.
"He's filled it out three times," Stacey says of her son. "He sent it in the mail. It's been sent back. So we're filling it in again."
Experts say there are three main reasons that students who qualify for federal aid don't submit the FAFSA. They may not think they qualify. They don't finish. Or they don't fill it out correctly.
Clay Jenkins says he has no idea where the mistake is.
"We sent it in again," he says, "and it was kind of unclear what they wanted us to correct. And they just kept sending it back."
Charity Garcia , a financial aid assistant, walks over and looks at Clay's FAFSA.
"It's telling you you didn't sign it," Garcia tells them.
"So all it is, is a signature that I need?" asks Clay.
"This is the third time!" Stacey Jenkins says.
But...the third time is not the charm, either. After Clay signs the online FAFSA form, Garcia reviews it.
"Here, where it asks if you're in legal guardianship, you put 'yes.' Legal guardianship is if you were removed from your parents' custody and put in someone else's custody," Garcia says. "I know you were thinking 'I'm in my mom's legal guardianship.' That's what a lot of students think. But this answer would actually be no."
Because Clay had already signed it, the computer didn't allow him to go back and correct that answer. Garcia tells them to wait 24 hours, log back on, and submit it one more time.
A recent NerdWallet study found that half of Florida's high school graduates didn't fill out the form in 2014, which is similar to national numbers. In response, President Obama made some major changes to the form last September.
"We've made it even faster," President Obama says in a YouTube video. "So now it only takes about 20 minutes to do. And starting next year, students and their families can submit it even earlier than ever."
Next year's high school seniors won't have to wait until after January of 2017 to fill out the newly streamlined FAFSA. They'll use 2015 tax information and can submit the form as early as October 1st, 2016. Polk State's Conliffe says this will let students know earlier in the admissions process how much financial aid they'll be able to count on.
And it will allow a bit more time -- just in case they need to don't get it right the first time.