MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Many colleges and universities are in financial trouble, and that means tuition hikes. For students struggling to cover those hikes, the new health care law should bring sweeping changes to federal student financial aid.
But as Tara Siler reports, many students, especially community college students, are not taking full advantage of the help that's available right now.
TARA SILER: The Pell Grant program provides grants to low-income undergraduate students - if only more would apply.
Mr. MARK KANTROWITZ (Publisher, FinAid.org): These students are leaving money on the table. And a Pell Grant is money that does not need to be repaid.
SILER: Mark Kantrowitz is publisher of FinAid, an online guide that helps students find funding for college. He estimates that about two million eligible students nationwide are foregoing this federal assistance, with the worst rates among community college students.
Here in California, those students leave about a half billion dollars in federal Pell Grants untapped. That's according to Debbie Cochrane with Berkeley's Institute for College Access and Success.
Ms. DEBBIE COCHRANE (Program Director, Institute for College Access and Success, UC Berkeley): Accessing up to $5,000 in grant aid, we think, would enable students to cut back their work hours. You know, maybe take one or two more classes and take a full-time load rather than a part-time load, and be able to get through their degree program faster.
SILER: Pell Grants, available to those who make less than $50,000 a year, can pay for anything a student needs: books, transportation, housing or tuition. But students who might want the grants face a major hurdle: the paperwork.
Mr. RON SALAZAR (Financial Aid Officer, Diablo Valley Community College): Do you know anything about this process?
Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)
Mr. SALAZAR: Do you want to know something about this process? I'll be very happy to tell you.
SILER: Financial aid officer Ron Salazar is cajoling a student at Diablo Valley Community College, east of San Francisco, to fill out the free application for a federal student aid known as FASA. The online form is the necessary stepping stone to all federal financial aid.
Student Chad Berquist(ph) walks outside with worksheets in hand. Last year, he gave up on the federal form.
Mr. CHAD BERQUIST (Student): It was so daunting, so challenging to fill out the FASA especially in my first year of college. And then now, the second year into it, you know, I'm a little bit more aware of the system.
SILER: The 29-year-old Berquist is a recession student, a surging demographic at community colleges. He lost his job as a crane operator and is looking to be retrained.
Mr. BERQUIST: Because I realize that education would be the only way to further my employment for the rest of my life.
SILER: But educating California's community college students about financial aid is a challenge. Brenda Jerez is the director for financial aid at Diablo Valley College.
Ms. BRENDA JEREZ (Director, Financial Aid, Diablo Valley College): We have the immigrant population that comes from a country in which college financial aid and all those things don't exist. And then we have our domestic students whose parents never have gone to college, they don't even know how college operates.
SILER: Still, Jerez says her understaffed office works hard to get the word out.
Eighteen-year-old Jasmine Vega(ph) filled out her application while a senior in high school. Now, a full-time college student and a young mother, Vega is receiving about $5,000 in federal and state assistance this school year.
Ms. JASMINE VEGA (Student): Financial aid has been really helpful when you don't really have anything.
SILER: Could you still be a student without it, do you think?
Ms. VEGA: I don't think so. No.
SILER: There will be even more federal financial aid available next fall. The trick will be to make sure community college students realize it's out there, that it can help, and that the paperwork hassle is worth it.
For NPR News, I'm Tara Siler in San Francisco.
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