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BLOOMINGTON — Stacy Spears of Bloomington knows she has to make every dollar count for her daughter's college.

"I'm a single mom, and in that situation you've got to get everything you can," she said. "I'm proud of her. She works really hard, and she deserves a good school."

Fortunately Spears' daughter, Gabrielle Brownfield, has already finished the hard part of getting to college: she has good grades and applications out to a half-dozen schools. And when it comes to paying for them, Spears is just one of the allies at the Bloomington High School senior's disposal.

"FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), financial aid and college in general can be a very scary and intimidating thing," said BHS counselor Lauren Follis. "We want our students and parents to know that we are here to help."

Schools across Bloomington-Normal are offering help to seniors and parents who need to fill out financial aid paperwork for college next fall.

Some, like BHS, are hosting FAFSA completion nights, including the one Spears and Brownfield attended Tuesday. BHS staff and representatives from the Illinois Student Assistance Commission stood by as families filled out the application in a computer lab.

Normal Community High School will host a similar event for its students and parents 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Students and parents from any school are invited to ISAC's workshop from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at Bloomington Public Library.

Many schools host events that are less structured, including BHS and Normal Community West High School, who bring in college coaches for weekly sessions. Normal West hosted a FAFSA night last fall, and counselors make themselves available for advice.

"Students are certainly invited to speak with us about (financial aid), and parents do stop in with questions about it as well," said Central Catholic High School counselor Josh Hunt.

College financial aid departments are happy to help, as well. University High School counselors often refer students to Illinois State University experts, and Heartland Community College hosts FAFSA workshops at 4 p.m. every Thursday in the Instructional Commons Building, Room 2301.

ISAC offers a free "My Money 101" tool for college-bound students that's accessible by visiting isac.org and clicking on "student portal."

No matter how students and parents fill out the FAFSA, ISAC representative Taylor Shelton recommends they do it soon — preferably by Sunday — even without final 2014 tax information.

"If you don't have 2014 taxes completed, you can use 2013 taxes as a placeholder and fix it later," she said. "The more students get (the FAFSA) done ahead of you, the more money is going to be gone."

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Normal and McLean County Reporter

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