Education has been my ultimate equalizer, my door opener, my salvation. Despite early troubles, I completed high school and found myself at a common crossroad — excited about going to college but completely unsure about how I was going to pay for it. The U.S. Army took on a lion's share of my tuition as I entered college. My mother, by completing the financial aid forms, helped pay the rest of the costs. In all honesty, without that financial aid, I would not have chosen Johns Hopkins University for my undergraduate education.

With this context and focus, I currently run BridgeEdU, a Baltimore-based platform that helps to address the college completion crisis by reinventing the freshman year of college. BridgeEdU works with our college partners (currently the University of Baltimore and the Community College of Baltimore County) to provide a softer on-ramp to higher education. Our first group of students is currently onboard and thriving, but the financial aid hurdle is real.

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And unfortunately some policies don't make it easy to overcome this barrier.

Our BridgeEdU scholars have a steadfast desire to learn. They want access to success and fulfillment. When they first applied, we asked if our scholars had filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA form opens the door to thousands of dollars in federal, state and institutional financial aid. All of the students indicated that they had completed the FAFSA, but the truth was, in September, 84 percent had not.

It wasn't that the students were lying, they had started the FAFSA process, but they had not pushed submit or completed all of the additional paperwork required to receive support. Or they were turned off by Maryland's early FAFSA deadline of March 1 to access state aid, a date far in advance of the federal deadline. Whatever the reason, they're missing out on what could be thousands of dollars in education aid.

The federal government offers generous need-based assistance through the Pell Grant program, which can help meet up to 63 percent of the average tuition of public college. Almost 10 million people received Pell Grants worth more than $33 billion last year.

Maryland also offers generous assistance to help with college costs. The Howard P. Rawlings Program of Educational Excellence Awards has provided millions to Maryland residents who study in-state, for example. But to qualify for such state aid in the coming school year, students must file their FAFSA by March 1, 2015 — a deadline, set by Maryland 50 years ago, that is among the earliest in the United States. Maryland is one of only 11 states that have an early FAFSA deadline, and it's hurting our state's most vulnerable students.

Research shows that low-income students, while qualified for need-based grant aid, still take on the most debt. Having ready access to the Internet and time to meet deadlines are significant challenges, as are managing the application process and retrieving data from the IRS — especially without guidance. Students who have college savvy families have difficulty sorting it all out. For first generation students, who tend to be low-income as well, many are jumping out of the plane and reaching for a parachute that needs three hands to maneuver.

At BridgeEdU, our first step is to make sure that as many students as possible complete the paperwork so they can gain eligibility to receive the thousands of dollars in financial aid they qualify for. Our students and their guardians need to fill out the forms. If you haven't already started, now is the time — before March 1. And don't wait to file your tax return. You can update or correct the data later.

Educators need to think critically about how we can better help students, including altering the Maryland FAFSA deadline date to ensure those most in need don't systematically fall on the outside of opportunity.

In order to have a serious conversation about growing the middle class in our city and state, we need to find ways of increasing the number of students who are college graduates, and to do that, we need to make it easier to get aid. I am where I am because people worked to make sure higher education was accessible and affordable to me. It is our societal and moral obligation to do the same for others.

Wes Moore is the founder and CEO of BridgeEdU (www.bridgeedu.com). Both of his books, "The Work" and "The Other Wes Moore," are New York Times bestsellers. He can be reached at wesm@bridgeedu.com.

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