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For the past eight months, Shantel Martinez has been frantically applying for scholarships and working 33 hours a week at Nickelcade while taking a full load of classes at Granger High School in West Valley City.
"My mom would ask me why I'm so stressed," Martinez said, explaining she was worried about paying for college.
She also filled out a FAFSA the Free Application for Federal Student Aid making her part of a minority in Utah: Only 34 percent of high school seniors in the Beehive State complete one.
That number puts Utah dead last in the nation for its rate of FAFSA completion by high school seniors, according to a new report from the National Center for Educational Statistics and Department of Education.
An analysis from NerdWallet reports that Utah students left a whopping $45.5 million in Pell Grants on the table last year, and key players don't seem to know why. FAFSA can also be the path to scholarships from the state and colleges, and loans.
"The consensus is, we wish we knew why we have such low completion rates. Because then we could fix it," said Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for Utah System of Higher Education (USHE). "Here in Utah we need to do a good job of making FAFSA part of the college-going culture."
Some higher education officials point to myths about FAFSA students believe the process is long and difficult, requires too many documents, or that their parents' income is too high and they won't qualify.
Others, though, point to Utah-specific cultural reasons.
"We have a population that tends to be debt-averse," said John Curl, director of financial aid at the University of Utah. "In some ways, financial aid is viewed as welfare, and I think some people feel like, 'I don't need that. I can make it on my own,' not realizing it's set up to assist people through school."
Pell Grants are not loans and don't have to be paid back. But Curl also said students may bypass filling out a FAFSA because they believe they will qualify only for government loans, instead of "free money."
"In reality, we're not looking at eligibility for federal money, but for state and institutional money," he said. "When they don't fill out the application, they take themselves out of that running as well."
Funding from the Legislature last year allowed the U. to increase the number of scholarships if offers from 1,000 to 3,400, and not all of those are need-based, Curl said.
Students may also skip FAFSAs because tuition rates in Utah are lower than most states. Utah's average cost of tuition for a two-year college in 2014 was $3,449, near the national average of $3,347. But four-year colleges average $6,661 in Utah, compared to the national average of $9,139 in tuition for public four-year in-state tuition.
Another battle colleges face in the FAFSA war is that students need to fill out an application every year.
"One time, students fill it out and they may not be eligible for everything they've hoped for, like getting a loan instead of free money," Curl said. "They think that's it, but circumstances change so it's important to fill it out regardless, every year."
The U. recently made a push for their returning students to complete a FAFSA before their deadline, March 1 (the deadlines vary by school), and boosted their total completion by 2,600 students, from last year's 12,000.
Another explanation could be public school funding many point to high school counselors as the golden ticket for getting kids to fill out a FAFSA.
But it's no secret that Utah lags behind the rest of the nation in per-pupil funding, even with the 4 percent funding increase for public schools finalized at the close of the recent legislative session.
And Utah has a counselor-to-student ratio of 726 to 1, ranking below only California and Minnesota, according to the Department of Education. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1.
Granger's Martinez points to Earnest Cooper, her school counselor, as the sole reason she knows about FAFSA.
At an event he organized last week, she learned that she qualifies for a $5,700 Pell Grant to pay for her first year of tuition and some books in the health science program at Salt Lake Community College.
"Now there's no more doubt in my head," she said at an open house for FAFSA help. "When I looked at the screen I was like, 'Oh, this is real. My school's paid for. This is happening.' "
Cooper's position isn't funded by the Granite School District. He's part of the Utah College Advising Corps, a U.-funded program that allows him to focus exclusively on seniors. His biggest emphasis is getting them financial aid. At Wednesday's event, he traded high-fives and secret handshakes with students who affectionately call him "Cooper."
In addition to the two FAFSA open houses Cooper hosted in March and February, his tactics are to target students during school hours, send messages home to parents, set up booths during lunch and visit classes.
But the most important player in getting kids to fill out a FAFSA? The kids themselves.
"The first one comes in and gets $5,000 and says, 'I need to tell my friend who doesn't have money to go to college,' " Cooper said. "It takes a village."
But there are always those who fall through the cracks.
Martinez hopes to be the first in her family to graduate from college and isn't embarrassed that she applied for college assistance from the government. But she noticed that only one of the friends she invited showed up to the school's FAFSA night.
Many of her friends are "not legal," she said, and are working to find scholarships that don't require citizenship, unlike FAFSA. Others "just kind of gave up, I guess, and resorted to getting a regular job."