By Matt Krumrie
JCFootball.com

It's early in the evening on a summer day in June and Rochester Community and Technical College coach Brad LaPlante is talking about one of the key elements to fielding a successful junior college football team. He wasn't talking about a star running back, or the addition of some highly-touted recruits. Although, the seven missed phone calls while he talked could have been any one of his student-athletes or members of the coaching staff calling him on another typically hectic day for a junior college football coach.

financial aid for college image

Actually, what LaPlante was talking about had nothing to do with the on-field aspect of the game of football. But without it many players may never even see the field. The topic?

Navigating the college financial aid maze - and how student-athletes and parents can better prepare, plan and execute all aspects of the financial aid process.

"I tell prospective student-athletes, no matter what you think or know about your financial situation, your background, need, ability to qualify, what a relative did, what your brother or sister qualified for or what your family believes, apply for financial aid," says LaPlante. "You never know what you can or can't qualify for if you don't apply."

With online tools, applying for financial aid seems like an easy process. Student-athletes are directed to the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Web site (www.fafsa.ed.gov) for information, tips and advice on how to complete the application. But that doesn't mean it's as simple as it seems.

"Every year we deal with issues when it comes to applying and filling out financial aid forms," says Jeff Leiker, the Athletic Director at Coffeyville Community College in Coffeyville, Kansas. Leiker coached the Ravens for seven years prior to taking over as A.D. in 2007.

Leiker is a big advocate of student-athletes taking advantage of any opportunities to receive financial aid, especially those at Coffeyville or in the Jayhawk Conference, which is only allowed to give the cost of books and tuition as part of a college scholarship package.

"It helps, but for many, covering the cost of housing, meals and other fees would not be possible without financial aid," says Leiker. "By taking the necessary steps to complete the forms correct - and on time - that can help get students moving in the right direction, get them a chance to go to college and play football."

LaPlante and Leiker - and just about any other head coach at any level of college athletics deals with the same thing. A student-athlete didn't complete the forms. Parents won't send in or don't have tax forms. They changed addresses and didn't update their information. They didn't turn them in on time. They typed in the wrong social security number - or they gave the school two different social security numbers by accident. They didn't utilize the school's financial aid office as a resource. The list of things that can, will - and have - gone wrong, is endless.

So, how does a student-athlete and/or parent navigate this process? How do they avoid common mistakes? What types of financial aid are available? How can a student utilize a school's financial aid office? James Scott, a financial aid coordinator at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester, Minnesota, answers these questions and more:

What are some of the issues you see when it comes to dealing with financial aid-related scenarios. In other words, what are some things that come up that can delay someone's financial aid or understanding of the process?

Scott: The biggest single issue which effects not only when but how much financial aid a student will receive is when the student applies.  A student can apply as of January 2nd of the year he/she will graduate. The school priority dates encourage students to apply before April 15th. When the student applies (completes the FAFSA) after April 15th they are at somewhat of a disadvantage as it applies to financial aid because some need based aid programs are first come first serve.

How do you navigate the financial aid maze as a parent or athlete? What does one need to know?

Scott: Parents and students can better navigate the financial aid maze by asking questions of the financial aid officers at the school they plan to attend and by researching the government financial aid site.

What are some common mistakes to avoid in the process?

Scott: Common mistakes made by students and parents include not following up after they complete a step in the financial aid process. They should not assume everything involved in the financial aid process is complete, they should continue to follow up until they receive a official financial aid award letter from their school.

There is a variety of financial aid packages out there. Can you list them?

Scott: Financial aid packages can consist of work-study, Pell grants, child care grants, state grants, and student loans.

Coaches talk about the importance of meeting deadlines. Why is this important and what are the affects of not meeting deadlines?

Scott: Missing a financial aid deadline could cost the student a lot of government grant money as well as work-study opportunities.

The FAFSA form - what is it?

Scott: The FAFSA is your free application for financial aid you can complete it on line at www.fafsa.ed.gov

How can a school's financial aid office help a student-athlete? What do people need to know about the financial aid office and how it can help them?

Scott: The financial aid office can help the student athlete navigate the financial aid process by explaining  and clarifying the financial aid process to the student.

When is the best time to start the financial aid process?

Scott:  Start the financial aid process as early as possible (January of the student's  senior year of High school).

Why should every student - whether they are an athlete or not - apply for financial aid?

Scott: Appling for financial aid costs the student nothing and every student will qualify for some form of financial aid even if it is just a student loan. Appling for financial aid gives the student more financial options than they normally would have.

Are the steps at a JC/CC any different than at a four-year or other types of higher education institutes?

Scott: The steps in applying for financial aid are no different if you attend junior college or a university. The only difference in the process is the school code used to send information to your specific school.
Throughout the process, Scott advises students and parents to be proactive and take control of their situation.

"The only other advice I would have is for the student to take responsibility to ensure their financial aid is processed in a timely manner," says Scott. "The financial aid system is designed to help those who help themselves. The student has to be proactive and get things done. Do not wait around  dreaming and thinking everything is okay with your application. Keep in contact with your financial aid office and make sure everything is complete."