It's FAFSA time again.
Jim Rozier, who has two children enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a third one who graduated from there, is well acquainted with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And he has a few four-letter words for the five-letter acronym.
"It's kind of like having your taxes done," said Rozier of Raleigh. "It's something you just dread."
Scary as it may be, the application is the doorway through which the nation's college students can tap into federal and state assistance for higher education.
And enduring this annual exercise is no picnic, even after a recent streamlining.
As the weak economy has led more to seek financial aid, universities are pushing students harder to fill out the form. Doing so, they urge their students, may result in some unexpected aid money. The problem: Some experts say the form's daunting reputation and a belief that it's a waste of time hurt precisely the people it is intended to help.
The centerpiece of this effort is FAFSA Day, which this year will be Saturday in North Carolina. Trained counselors at hundreds of colleges, universities, State Employees Credit Union branches and other locations will help students fill out the forms. It's a free service. Around the country, College Goal Sunday programs offer students help filling out forms on various days in February and March.
The number of college students completing the form has increased steadily in recent years. Still, there's room to grow and obstacles to overcome, said Robbie Schultz, outreach manager with the State Education Assistance Authority, which administers student aid programs in North Carolina.
"People often look at the forms and are overwhelmed," Schultz said. "A lot of times, they don't know where to start. We don't want anyone to miss out on college if the barrier is completing the application."
The Web-based application is a few pages long. But it demands plenty of demographic and financial information -- such as household income and tax return data -- that many 18-year-olds don't have. And it delves deep. Were you on supplemental assistance? Did you receive food stamps last year? Free or reduced lunches? Temporary assistance or WIC, the supplemental nutrition program for women with children?
Rozier, the Raleigh parent, is a sales representative with Cisco Systems. A graduate of North Carolina State University, he considers himself relatively Web-savvy and intelligent. Still, his head spins a bit each time he fills out the application.
"Do you have this? Did you qualify for this? I don't know," he said. "You end up answering 'No' to a lot of things you're not sure of. I would hate to see someone in their first year of college try to fill this out. It's intimidating."
To be clear, the completed application is no ticket to riches. But it is required for students to be eligible for Pell and other federal grant programs, as well as other state and federal grants and loans. It's an annual exercise; students must fill it out each year.
Because it's free, educators say it's always worth a shot.
"We'd like all students to fill it out," said Regina Huggins, financial aid director at Wake Technical Community College in N.C., where about 10,000 of 22,000 students completed the form last year. "A lot of times, students make the assumption that they won't qualify."
Not all students are intimidated. Felecia Ellis, 23, a Wake Tech. student, has gotten used to filling out the form and no longer considers it an imposition.
"Nobody likes to fill out papers, but it's there to help you," Ellis said. "If you follow each step correctly, you can fly through it."
(Contact Eric Ferreri at eric.ferreri(at)newsobserver.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)