FAFSA is a four-letter word in some households. In others, it's a mystery. As millions of parents and college students know, FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the 1040-like form college-bound students must submit to be eligible for financial assistance.
Uncle Sam's computers look over the form and determine how much students and their families should be expected to contribute toward paying for college. The rest can be made up through grants, loans and work-study.
Like all government forms, especially those involving money, the FAFSA is hellishly complicated. And the people who know the least about the process are those who most need the aid. This is why financial aid professionals will fan out across Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia on Sunday afternoon to give free and confidential FAFSA assistance.
In Maryland, parents and students who attend "College Goal Sunday" should take 2002 income and benefits information, including federal tax returns and W-2 forms, to one of 15 locations across the state. They can be found with a toll-free call to 1-866-GO2GOAL.
Knowing the financial aid ropes is particularly important to low-income students, many of whom don't know they're entitled to federal Pell Grants, worth up to $4,000 a year - and many of whom are in high schools with burdened counselors serving 400 to 500 students.
In a recent national poll commissioned by the student loan giant Sallie Mae, 60 percent of parents with incomes under $50,000 said they needed more information about how to pay for college, while the majority of all parents and young adults planning to attend college did not name grants and scholarships as a source of financial aid. That's unacceptable, when 60 percent of new jobs created between now and 2010 will require a college education.