March 1 is the priority date for students to apply for federal and University assistance using the Free Application for Student Financial Assistance Programs commonly known as FAFSA, the most powerful tool the University of Arizona has to help students financially.
The application allows students access to grants, work study opportunities, loans and scholarships.
Grants are financial aid that don't have to be paid back. Work-Study allows for students to work and earn money to help pay for school. Loans are borrowed money that must be repaid with interest.
Undergraduates may receive grants, loans and federal work-study opportunities.
Graduate students may receive loans and federal work-study, but not the federal grants.
The priority date of March 1 is set to ensure that students who apply by this day are eligible to receive full access to their share of the grant and scholarship funds. Because the grant and scholarship funds are limited, and there are thousands of UA applicants, the amount of grant funds available for distribution begins to decrease.
More importantly, the priority application date--or deadline--applies to the availability of certain programs, such as state grant funds and work-study programs, which are awarded on a first-come-first-served basis.
"March 1 is a priority. Everything up to March 1 is equal but after that date, opportunity starts to slip away-sometimes by huge steps. For example, a student who was grant eligible could lose thousands of dollars by waiting till after March 1," said John Nametz, director of the UA Office of Student Financial Aid.
Nametz said the FAFSA was the best tool the UA has to help students. "But people have to file their FAFSA to establish eligibility and get into our system. We do the qualifying here; all they have to do is to be admitted and to file for financial aid."
According to Nametz, last year the UA invested over $100 million of its institutional funds for student scholarship and grants.
Overall, he expects the total amount of aid to grow by $40 million to a total of over $440 million.
Working in tandem with the FAFSA, UA institutional funds and other resources, the UA Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid combines funds under the UA Student Scholarship Services Project and the Federal Work Study Program or other jobs on campus to enhance its financial aid opportunities for students.
Nametz said the UA Student Scholarship Services Project has taken advantage of the UA study body's competitiveness and effectiveness in obtaining outside scholarships.
"Statewide, UA students are the most competent in bringing in scholarships. They have proven to be quite successful and they are sharing their effective strategies with other students. Our office helps match students to specific scholarship requirements," Nametz said.
According to Nametz, UA students brought in more than $12 million in outside scholarships including scholarships from the Gates Foundation Millennium Scholarship.
The UA Student Scholarship Services project is funded by a UA student services fee through the summer of 2012 and looks to maximize UA student access to outside scholarships through outreach, student support and a streamlined scholarship selection system.
The project supports a twitter feed and a student listserv to help create awareness of scholarship opportunities and deadlines among students.
In total, Nametz said UA undergraduates are receiving over $79 million in scholarships and grants from the University designed for recognizing the needs of incoming students.
"UA-based scholarships are real attainable scholarships-not just for those in top of their class. They are renewable, and even if a student loses the scholarship due to grades, UA scholarships allow for avenues to regain the scholarship," he added.
The UA's Federal Work Study Program and other UA jobs on campus make up a $20 million annual undergraduate payroll. Moreover, according to Nametz, jobs on campus offer multiple benefits to students in addition to money to help with the costs of attaining a college education.
"Jobs have many kinds of benefits besides earning money to offset costs. It keeps students focused and connected to the University and the jobs provide huge career benefits. They are resume builders," he said.
"For instance, our own financail aid student employees are a good recruiting base for financial aid offices in U.S., including ours. Our work study students go on to a variety of degree-related jobs," he added.
Financial award letters are already making their way to freshmen students this week.
The efficiency of the award letter notification allows families to plan ahead.
"It's a means of keeping our students and parents connected to reality. With the financial award letters families know their financial aid status and what we can offer the student and the family so that they can start making plans. They may be surprised to find that with their financial aid package, tuition for a semester at the UA will cost them less than tuition at the local community college," Nametz said.
Students and parents should keep in mind that needs change and this is why he recommends that any student complete a FAFSA regardless of perceived need.
"Even if a household is making $200,000 we understand there still may be need. A FAFSA gives any family that flexibility to readily connect students with scholarships or other financial aid should there be a change in employment status or income," he said.