Elida Miranda-Zaragoza is like a traveling salesman. But what she has is coveted information — and there's no need to buy it.
She visits high schools in Modesto, Patterson, Hughson and Waterford, among others, spreading the word and answering questions about financial aid for college-bound students.
Though she's an outreach recruiter at Modesto Junior College, her aim is to help anyone planning on attending college anywhere.
"A lot of people don't know where to start," she said. "So I try to guide them."
Most families are overwhelmed by the financial aid puzzle, but they know they must apply to help students pay for tuition, school supplies and living expenses.
The need is always there, regardless of the economy, said Myra Rush, head of financial aid at MJC. But the recession and its accompanying loss of jobs and reduced work hours, has caused an uptick in people seeking help, she said.
To date, $20.6 million in financial aid has been paid to MJC students. With 11 more weeks in the spring semester, that number nears the total for last school year — $22.4 million.
The first step in the financial aid process is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, arguably an intimidating piece of paperwork for many families.
Miranda-Zaragoza offered some advice for college-bound students:
Q: How do you spread awareness to high school students and their parents?
A: "Each high school wants something different," she said, adding that she makes general presentations to large audiences, gives workshops where small groups of students and parents fill out the FAFSA form online, and holds one-on-one meetings to answer specific questions.
Miranda-Zaragoza said people don't have to attend California State University, Stanislaus, or MJC to e-mail, call or visit financial aid offices with questions.
Q: What advice do you give students and their parents?
A: "Do not pay for financial aid help," she said.
Some Web sites, she noted, pose as FAFSA-sponsored, but charge people.
"I emphasize the word 'free' in Free Application for Federal Student Aid," Miranda-Zaragoza said.
Q: What are common questions students and parents ask?
A: The usual questions from parents include: "How much do we qualify for?" "How does owning my own business affect my child's eligibility?" and "How long can we get financial aid?"
"I tell them they have to apply every year," Miranda-Zaragoza said.
Another common inquiry is: "If my child works and lives on his own, why do the parents have to provide their income on the FAFSA form?"
Miranda-Zaragoza said the government expects some financial assistance from a student's family until the student turns 24 or gets married.
Q: What should students do after they complete the FAFSA?
A: Follow up with the financial aid offices at their top college to make sure the schools received all their information and documents.
Students sometimes won't know which colleges they've been admitted to until after they hear about their financial aid awards.
"When the FAFSA is turned in, you're about halfway done" with applying for financial aid, she said.