BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - It's called a FAFSA - a free application college bound students must fill out if they want to receive financial aid, be it loans or grants.
Because so few high school grads completed the form, a recent study says more than $2.3 billion was left behind in 2016, much of that FREE federal dollars.
"We always say, 'Just give yourself a chance to be awarded the funds'," says Jill Howell.
She's the founder of N2College, an Alabama based program that helps families prepare and pay for college.
She points to recent studies that show Alabama was 45th in the country last year when it came to completing FAFSAs.
It's a sobering reality when compared to neighboring Tennessee, which was ranked 1st.
Howell says some families feel they make too much to qualify. But she recalls one student whose parent who had a six-figure income, but applied anyway.
"When they finished the application, they had almost $1,000 in free money they would have missed," she says.
Some schools get creative in their efforts to get students to fill out the forms.
"A lot of times what they'll do is designate a specific seat in the lunchroom and say, 'Hey seniors--this is reserved for you. Come sit down during lunch and start," Howell describes. "And then they have little celebrations when they reach different levels of completion--50 percent, 90-percent, 100-percent."
So what do students and parents do to get started? First, go to the FAFSA website: studentaid.ed.gov.
Once you've registered, Howell says pay attention to deadlines and realize there's not just federal dollars available, but state money and money for each campus.