Ngoctram Tran stuffed the things she hoped would unlock thousands of dollars toward her daughter's college education inside a plastic bag: her driver's license, Social Security cards, bank statements and W-2s.
But the most important thing she'd need wasn't in the bag — patience.
Tran and her daughter, Michelle Nguyen, 17, spent an evening recently at Garden Grove High School to finish the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the cumbersome, but essential, form that can make or break a student's college assistance.
This is the time of year when a rush of college acceptances also can bring anxiety over how families can afford the high costs of tuition and fees.
The application, known as the FAFSA, is required to tap the $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study funds doled out each year by the federal government, as well as other state and private funds.
But the form became a difficult hurdle for families and a deterrent to apply for some. Today, the process is designed to be smoother.
"The FAFSA form itself used to be a barrier to college entry," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a speech late last year. "That drove me crazy — and I'm thrilled we were able to make it quicker and simpler to complete."
Duncan has gone on a publicity blitz, touting the FAFSA as easier and saying students can complete it in fewer than 30 minutes. He frequently takes to Twitter to remind students to fill it out and even created a why-FAFSA-matters list with animated images of cats and reality shows on the popular website Buzzfeed.
In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has simplified and streamlined the process. Nearly all applicants now complete the form online instead of filing out by hand a lengthy paper application. A feature that tailors questions to each applicant has reduced time. A tool used to retrieve Internal Revenue Service tax information online, rather than manually inputting the information, has shortened completion times as well.
The changes have led to a 50% increase in the number of students who completed the application over the last four years, Duncan said.
Heather Brown, a college counselor at Hollywood High School, said that although it still can be complicated, the FAFSA is far easier to complete than in years past.
"It could take a matter of days," she said. "It was trying to get all the stars to align — a student, a parent, a tax return and time to deal with the nitty-gritty of it."
It now takes her students — nearly 70% of whom are low-income — about an hour, Brown said.
The application is used to calculate the expected contribution by the student's family toward the cost of college. That amount determines eligibility for federal need-based student aid, as well as many state, university and private aid programs, as well as federal loans. In California, the form is necessary for students to receive a portion of the $1.8 billion in need-based Cal Grants awarded by the state.
This year, the Education Department will for the first time consider income information from a student's parents regardless of their marital status or gender, if the couple live together.
Despite the changes, prospective and current college students leave dollars on the table, said Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission.
Often families think they earn too much to qualify or view it as a form of welfare, she said. Some are reluctant to share detailed financial information, or fear retribution for not having filed taxes. Parents who are in the country illegally fear they will be deported if they do not put a Social Security number on the form. (Only the student's Social Security number is needed for submission.) Others simply see it as too much of a hassle, Fuentes-Michel said.
"Some students are just unaware that financial aid is available by filling out a free form," she said. For that reason, simple outreach can save students thousands of dollars in the long run, she said.
Counselors and others say students and their families should complete the form as soon as possible because financial aid is finite; chances for awards are better sooner rather than later.
Garden Grove High counselors and others led about 200 students and parents through a lesson last week on how to navigate the application.
Makiah Green, a college advisor, walked the group through the FAFSA section by section, taking questions and giving advice.
"You do not want to wait until the last minute with financial aid — because when it's gone, it's gone," she warned.
The event, dubbed Cash for College, was one of hundreds being held around the country; it's designed to explain the intricacies of the FAFSA and assist families in completing it. Even with all the improvements, the process, and its potential benefits, are unknown and difficult to access for many students, Green said.
"If you're on your own, with nobody to help you, it can be overwhelming," she said.
Zaira Hernandez, 18, tried to complete the process on her own. It nearly cost her thousands of dollars.
Hernandez, the first in her family to go to college, learned about the FAFSA during a presentation at Hamilton High School in west Los Angeles.
She completed the form and received a notice informing her of an expected family contribution far more than what her parents could afford. She was crushed — and scared of the prospect of saddling herself with hefty loans.
She eventually asked the Fulfillment Fund, a nonprofit Los Angeles group that focuses on helping disadvantaged students attend college, to review her application. Advisors quickly discovered an error in the tax information portion.
Hernandez was eligible for far bigger grants than she initially thought. She now attends Cal Poly Pomona and covers the tuition through a variety of scholarships and small loans.
"I would have been really struggling if I didn't catch the mistake," she said.
At Garden Grove, Tran read off numbers from her tax documents as her daughter, the more computer savvy of the pair, typed them directly into the FAFSA. Michelle hopes to attend UC Santa Barbara; her mom wants her to go to UCLA.
"Are you sure that's the right form, Mom?" Michelle asked, quickly regretting doing so. "Yes!" Tran shot back, with a laugh. "I know what I'm talking about."
Without enough aid, Michelle will probably need to take out loans to cover tuition. "I'd love to pay for my daughter — but I can't," Tran said. "But I know this country won't waste her mind because I can't pay."
When they finished, after 45 minutes, Tran was surprised.
"I thought it was going to be something very complicated," Tran said, reloading her trusty plastic bag, "but it was not so bad."