Ottumwa High School, aerial file photo

OTTUMWA — The high school saw record attendance at its annual FAFSA night on Tuesday.

“I’m really happy with the turnout, and excited that more people are getting their FAFSA completed,” said Barb Hanson, GEAR UP coordinator at OHS. “It just opened today. So for people to come before there’s even really a sense of urgency is exciting.”

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a form students planning to attend college must fill out in order to qualify for federal financial aid. The problem is that the FAFSA is notoriously difficult to understand and complete correctly. In order to even access the FAFSA, applicants must register for the FSA ID, which is difficult to complete on its own.

“If you have one key wrong it shuts you out,” Hanson said. “So for a lot of people, that’s overwhelming. You try one or two times, and you get locked out, or you’re not understanding what it’s asking, and then the process ends there because you don’t know what to do next.”

The stakes are quite high. According to Hanson, about 90 percent of students who complete the FAFSA go on to attend college.

In order to help families through the process, the high school hosts an annual workshop during which applicants can get help filling out the form every step of the way. Teachers, counselors, community members, and employees of the IHCC Educational Opportunity Center all came out to volunteer their time.

This year, 42 families attended. It’s a new record.

“I think attendance was higher than normal because the culture is shifting within our school and district,” Hanson said. “This is a result of countless district staff, community members, and agencies all working together on this initiative. I also think having students engaged and in leadership roles helps — they can remind their friends of the opportunities, as well as contribute to a contagious college-going energy.”

There are a number of initiatives and organizations at the high school that encourage students to attend college. The high school’s GEAR UP program, which Hanson coordinates, recently held an event where students could come and talk about their college plans with other students. Another organization is Al Éxito, which provides first-generation Latino students resources and guidance for attending college.

There is no deadline to complete the FAFSA, but each state only receives a select portion of federal aid, and it’s distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. So students are encouraged to fill it out as quickly as possible, before the state runs out.

For those who missed this year’s FAFSA night, help is always available through the school’s guidance office or GEAR UP. Students or parents can contact Barb Hanson at barb.hanson@ottumwaschools.com if they have any further questions.

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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