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Last fall, warnings on university letterhead threatened to cut off Leslie Sixtos' food and housing if she did not pay up.
Two months after buying books and starting her job as a campus tour guide at Utah State University Eastern, Sixtos still had not received the federal grant she had applied for almost a year earlier.
Relief finally came in October, when Sixtos returned to her dormitory after work one day to find an email saying she would receive enough money to stay enrolled.
"I called my mom and we were both screaming," said the criminal-justice major. "This is my motivation to continue school and do great in it."
Sixtos is not alone. Even after they come to campus, many Utah college students remain in limbo, unsure of whether their federal financial aid will allow them to stay. But that is set to change, say Utah's higher-education officers as the financial aid timeline is scheduled to advance.
"This can only be a positive," said Stephen Rogers, outreach manager at the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, "because it gets the question of, 'Hey, am I going to school?' in front of the students earlier."
It spells good news for Utah's high school sophomores, who will be the first group to apply for both admission and aid at the same time. The main change is that they will be able to file the financial forms for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in October, three months earlier than now. They also can rely on 2-year-old income information to fill it out, instead of waiting for parents' tax forms to arrive with the most up-to-date income information. This year's applicants still have had to wait until Jan. 1 and use 2015's income information.
Some expect the move to improve school retention rates in Utah.
Currently, it's not unusual for students to already be preparing for midterms by the time their aid package comes in. Often, factors out of their control can extend the wait time.
For example, the financial aid office Sixtos relied on was in the middle of being absorbed by its parent center at the main Utah State University campus in Logan, school officers told her, so it took even longer to process her forms.
Sixtos dogged aid officers to ensure the money would come. Other students complained on Twitter and the anonymous posting app YikYak this fall about long lines and headaches. One Twitter user at the University of Utah joked the experience had him rooting against the Utes before their September season-opener against the University of Michigan Wolverines at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The timeline change announced by President Barack Obama this fall is expected to help correct those hang-ups.
Students are more likely to escape the stress and unknowns once on campus, said Rogers, because they'll receive grant offers up to three months earlier. They are more likely to stay, he said, if they know their financial outlook from the outset.
Students often are told they will receive more money for applying on the early side. So families also should breathe a sigh of relief with the knowledge they won't have to wait until tax season.
"With this new change, that's out the window," Rogers said. "Everyone should be on equal footing."
Even with the new requirements, getting financial aid remains a difficult process.
The online forms require clicking through scores of pages and ask for a trove of financial information. For example, families must locate and report investment information on trust funds and stocks, but not 401(k) or retirement plans.
The paperwork is needed to secure Pell grants the scholarships that are reserved for low-income students and do not need to be repaid as well as other aid. It's also necessary for work-study opportunities, like campus jobs in the cafeteria or library. And it's used by colleges and external organizations to determine eligibility for other kinds of grants.
Sixtos, for her part, first learned about the process in a college information night at Granger High School last year. It was new and daunting to her family, who moved to West Valley City from Los Angeles years ago. The aspiring veterinarian is set to be the first in her family to graduate from college.
Sixtos' role as a USU ambassador a school employee who travels the state fielding questions from prospective students and parents pays her tuition in full. But her federal Pell grant pays her additional bills. It even allowed her to buy a small laptop, her main note-taking and study tool.
Even though the award is free, it is underutilized in Utah and across the country.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates 2 million college students eligible for the aid never applied for it. Many in that group are from Utah, which has the lowest rate of financial aid applications, according to a NerdWallet analysis released earlier this year.
About one in three Utah high school seniors fill out the FAFSA, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and U.S. Department of Education.
The other two-thirds are the students Rogers and Sixtos are trying to reach, especially as the new process gets underway.
"Applying early is a good step," Sixtos said. "They'll just be set to go: No problem, no doubting."