For this NH grad student, the FAFSA unlocked a whole new opportunity

January 16, 2024 Paying for College

As she entered her second year of grad school at UNH-Manchester, Katie Merrill wasn’t going to bother filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.) She was well aware of its value because, well, her mother happens to be Moira Valenti, a senior education and career counselor at Granite Edvance. But, like many people, she didn’t see much point because she figured she wouldn’t qualify for aid.

As luck would have it, Katie ended up signing into her FAFSA account one day when her mother was helping her brother fill out his FAFSA. “I decided I might as well fill it out,” she said.

A few months later, the FAFSA became pivotal to Katie’s career pathway – and Katie became something of a trailblazer.

To finish her program of study in biotechnology last year, she needed to complete an internship. “Finding internships for biotechnology can definitely be difficult, especially if you don’t want to drive to Boston,” said Katie, who grew up in Derry and now lives in Hillsborough. “I had been looking for about six months and sending out different applications.”

Finally, Katie found an open position for a lab assistant at the UNH Biotechnology Innovation Center. The only problem: It didn’t qualify as an internship because it didn’t offer enough hours. Working with one of her professors, Katie learned about a grant through the Economic Development Administration that offered a possible solution.

To qualify for the grant, Katie had to be eligible for the Federal Work-Study Program. And to establish Work-Study eligibility, she needed – you guessed it — the FAFSA. If she hadn’t completed it when she did, it would have been too late.

Utilizing the grant, Katie and her professors were able to increase the hours for the lab assistant position and turn it into an internship. Ultimately, she was transferred to a different lab at a biotechnology company in Manchester. After graduating in December, she’s continuing the internship to the end of the 30-week grant and will then transition into full-time employment at the company. (She can’t say much about the company or her work there because she signed a non-disclosure agreement.)

Meanwhile, the internship has also opened doors for other biotech students in Manchester, which is quickly becoming a biotech hub. “I was the first intern that they were able to fund through this grant,” Katie said. “Now that they and UNH know the process, other companies have started to ask UNH for interns.”

Plenty of people assume, like Katie, that the FAFSA won’t benefit them. Others worry that filling out the FAFSA will force them to take out loans (it doesn’t) or are worried about the government having their financial information (the form pulls directly from IRS records, which the government already has). A 2023 report by the National College Attainment Network estimated that more than $3.6 billion in Federal Pell grants went unclaimed by the high school class of 2022.

To increase access to federal aid, the U.S. Department of Education released a new FAFSA last month. The new form contains fewer questions and utilizes a new aid formula. Meanwhile, a new state law went into effect this year, requiring all high school seniors to complete the FAFSA or sign a waiver in order to graduate. Granite Edvance is supporting students, families, and educators in navigating the new FAFSA, offering one-on-one appointments, in-school presentations, webinars, and other resources. For more information about the FAFSA, visit our FAFSA page.

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