By Emily Petraglia

Paul Kusibab, a junior biology major at the University of Georgia, said that one of his biggest reasons for joining the military was for access to federal financial aid programs.

Kusibab is one of almost 18 million American college students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year, according to Savingforcollege.com.

The form is required to determine how much, if any, federal aid a student receives. Since the enactment of the 1965 Higher Education Act, financial aid programs have made attending college more accessible to people of all backgrounds, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“They’re extremely important,” Kusibab said. “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to pay for school by myself…  I don’t really get assistance from my family.”

FAFSA enables college students to qualify for grants, work-study and low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Education, according to the College Board. The federal government awards about $120 billion annually in the forms of Pell Grants, Stafford Loans and other scholarship opportunities.

FAFSA for the 2021-2022 academic year opened in October and students are eligible to apply now.

Kusibab also qualifies for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a higher education program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

After 36 months of service, individuals qualify for 100% of their benefits, which pays for schooling entirely up to a certain amount every year.

Scholarships are available for housing, books and supplies in the Post-9/11 GI Bill as well.  FAFSA applications are required by UGA, though, for students to be eligible for financial aid assistance.

Tess Wilson, a financial aid advisor at UGA, said that FAFSA is the “key to all federal aid.”

Wilson works in the scholarships department of UGA’s Office of Student Financial Aid, where she answers questions to help students understand their financial aid options.

“FAFSA is an opportunity for students that wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay for school to have access to education. And, you know, education is the door to a better life in a lot of ways, for a lot of people,” Wilson said.

Northeastern University reported in 2020 that college graduates receive 57% more career opportunities. However, the Pew Research Center found that there is an increasing population of undergraduate students below in the poverty line in 2019. Without financial aid, newly independent adults are struggling to manage personal finance and carry the weight of looming debt. The coronavirus pandemic has not made any of these transitions easier.

“I think that [without FAFSA] a lot fewer students would have the opportunity to seek higher education,” Wilson said. “Our whole society would be poorer for that.”

Wilson encourages all students to file FAFSA every year and to reach out for help if needed. She said advisers realize the process can be intimidating and strenuous, but added they are available to make it easier.

“I know it can be really confusing, but we’re here to answer your questions and we’re happy to spend as long as it takes to help explain,” Wilson reassured.

Kusibab said his experience suggests students should assess all their options and craft a route best suited for them and their career goals.

“I would not recommend joining the military just for college,” Kusibab said. “I think it’s a very risky decision. Although I’m very thankful for the benefits that I received for my service, it is barely worth it to join the military. A lot of people were more unlucky than I was in their service.”

Emily Petraglia is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.