Honest talk on College Costs

In the wake of the recent global financial crises, many families are finding the reality of sending their child away to college financially daunting.  In any tenuous and rapidly evolving situation it is critical that parents and students communicate honestly with each other about all of the issues they face financing college.  If you are like many parents who have seen a significant decrease in their portfolios in the past few months, it is more important than ever to explain to your college-bound kid how this change may or may not impact your (the parents’) ability to pay for college.  It is also crucial  to discuss with your student the MANY options available to cover college costs.   In his recent inaugural address, President Obama challenged us to “pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off” and while the pain of financial loss is never an easy burden, the pain will only intensify without honest conversations that allow each participant to air his or her concerns, fears, hopes, and dreams.

So how do you move from where you are today to assisting your child in financing his or her education?  Hopefully most of you have already submitted your 2009-2010 Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. If not, you should submit the form today. Make your next virtual stop a visit to www.fafsa.ed.gov where you can find out what documentation you should have handy to complete the form, answer any questions about the various financial aid programs, and complete the FAFSA free of charge.  Remember that each school will have different financial aid deadlines, guidelines, forms needed to be filed (in addition to the FAFSA) and priorities.  Visiting all these web sites and making note of these will help to keep you organized and ensure on time application for all aid available from each school.  Remember all schools that participate in the Federal Financial Aid programs must, by law, use the FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility for all federal programs.  Remember, filing the FAFSA is free on www.fafsa.ed.gov.  FAFSA preparers can charge families to file the FAFSA.  In fact, a site called www.fafsa.com may pick-up clients who think they are on the Department of Education’s site (notice the similar name) and do not realize they can file free of charge if they prefer. 

If financial aid was not something you had considered applying for in the past but now find your family’s ability to pay is reduced, you must contact the financial aid office at the schools and colleges to which your child is applying ASAP. For those readers with students already in school, but now in need of aid, it is also imperative to speak with the financial aid office. In many cases it is worth a parent’s time and energy to make a trip to campus to speak directly with a financial aid advisor.  School requirements may vary so it is important to check out each individual college and universities web site for deadlines and all required financial aid materials.  Some schools require students to complete the CSS Profile or a college-specific financial aid form.  Students whose parents are divorced or separated or who own their own business may also be required to complete other forms in addition to the FAFSA. 

For those families hoping the financial aid office will be able to make up the difference between what they feel they can pay and what their total cost might be—please rethink this strategy. Not only are many of us are reeling from our own financial crisis but colleges and universities have also been hard hit. In some cases endowments have been devastated by both the downturn of the market and outright fraud. Yeshiva University’s loss of close to 125 million and Tufts‘s 20 million dollar loss are examples of two schools whose endowments were in the hands of Madoff Securities. (January 16, 2009 New York Times).  There is some good news, the federal government has taken steps to ensure that the federal student loan programs continue to operate smoothly and students are able to continue to borrow at low interest rates through the Stafford and Perkins Loan programs.  Additionally, while many schools have suffered losses to their endowments, schools are still committed to financial aid programs including scholarship and grant aid to students.  In fact, no school has taken back promised financial aid this year or changed its pledges for the coming year.  (Economic crisis straining college aid system, parents’ nerves as financial aid season opens

 

So it is important to think beyond the traditional financial aid route, get creative on financing your child’s education, and begin the application process early.

Often parents are uncomfortable discussing financial issues with their student, but if your child does not understand your expectations, desires, and goals, then it is difficult for her or him to meet them.  Additionally, while much of the news is gloomy there are ways to obtain a college education for less and honest discussions between parents and children can help flesh out these options to see which might work for your family.   The following examples may seem elementary but are a great starting point for discussion as a family. These are meant to get families thinking about how to make college a reality. Most of the cost saving ideas mentioned will not cover the total cost of attendance but will assist with a portion.

Local Scholarships are a great way to assist families with financial need.  Looking locally first gives students an edge and helps save time.  Start researching scholarship possibilities in the guidance office, as many high schools coordinate local scholarship programs, distributing thousands of dollars to graduating seniors. Investigate parent’s, grandparents   and students’ places of employment as many companies also participate in scholarship programs.  Local Rotary Clubs, Junior Leagues, Masons, Moose and Elks Lodges also a good starting point. Places of worship, youth groups and other civic organizations are other great sources of money. It’s important to keep in mind that every dollar counts and local scholarships are worth the time it takes to fill out the application.

Campus or nearby-campus job (work study and non-work study positions).  Although many parents do not want their children to work while in school, there are many jobs on campus (both work study and non-work study position) that work with and around student schedules.  Additionally, working while taking classes helps students to prioritize their time, adds to their skills foundation, and introduces them to new people already working.

ROTC Scholarship.  A career in the military is not an avenue for every student, however, for some students this option is the right path.  ROTC scholarships vary by military branch and school.  Please check with ROTC web site at your school.

Resident Assistant Position.  These positions typically pay students a stipend in addition to room and board for the school year.  These are coveted on-campus jobs so researching the requirements and submitting an application early is critical to landing the position. Not only do these jobs save you money but they also look great on a resume!

Community College for the first two years.  While many students would rather leave home for the traditional 4-year college experience right after high school, many students find that their local community college can meet their academic and family financial needs for the first two years of school. 

Transfer credit.  Often students can transfer credit from summer classes taken at local community college.  If a student transfers in the maximum number of community college credits, the savings again can be significant.  In many cases AP classes are also awarded college credit.  Remember, each college will transfer credit differently, so savings will vary from school to school. 

In-State tuition.  If you and your student haven’t considered a state school now is the time to look. There are many fine state-funded schools throughout the United States.  See our blog piece on financial gems for a longer discussion about this option. 

Tuition Benefits.  Some employers will pay for some or all of an employee’s educational costs.  Although this option often requires full-time work by the student and is not ideal for all students and families.  If you have an undecided student who would like to take time off, suggest the student seek employment with companies offering tuition benefits!

Co-Op Programs.  Colleges and university offering Coop programs are also attractive in the present financial climate.  These programs allow students to obtain paid training in their chosen field during college.  Students typically work a semester or two and then return to school full-time to complete their studies.

Although not an exhaustive list, these ideas can begin to show families that obtaining their college degree for less is not impossible.   Time spent by both students and parents investigating the possibilities is a great investment and will hopefully alleviate some of the financial burden associated with a college degree.


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