College Financial Aid
What Savvy Parents and Their Teens Need to Know
Sending your kids off to college, a daunting financial prospect in the best of times, has become even harder in our current economy. The College Board recently reported that average college tuition in the United States rose by 6.5 percent this year, even though consumer prices declined 2.1 percent. This puts an ever increasing burden on parents trying to put one or more children through college.
And yet, it doesn’t mean that your son’s or daughter’s dream university is now out of reach. You just have to plan ahead and understand the financial aid process. “Too many students leave it to the last minute,” says Kent Garrett, a financial aid adviser at Johnson County Community College (JCCC). His advice is simple: “Start early!” Some financial aid is granted on a first-come, first-served basis, which means the earlier you start, the better your chances in a growing pool of applicants. JCCC has seen a 17 percent increase in financial aid applications from last year, a number that is in line with the nationwide trend.
How to apply for financial aid
Financial aid in the form of grants (need-based), scholarships (merit-based), loans or work-study programs is typically used to cover the difference between the cost of college and the amount a family can afford to pay, the so-called Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This EFC is determined with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which all students applying for financial aid have to file. It asks for income and asset information of the parents and student to determine the EFC, which is then sent to the schools you list on the FAFSA.
“The FAFSA is always, always, the first step for college financial aid,” says Julie Honn of Ottawa, KS, who is currently a junior at the University of Kansas. “It's how you and your school figure out how much aid you qualify for.” To file your FAFSA, visit the FAFSA website (see sidebar). Do not go to knock-offs such as fafsa.com, advises Garrett, as this site actually charges you for what is a free application. In fact, the one warning given by practically every expert on the topic is to steer clear of people promising to help with your financial aid planning for a fee. The whole idea is to save money, not spend more!
When should you apply?
The earliest a FAFSA can be filed is January of the student’s senior year in high school. Even if you don't qualify for aid in the first year, apply again in the second year, as your circumstances might have changed (for instance, another sibling entering college). The best time to complete your FAFSA is before April, according to Garrett. “Make sure you file your taxes early, because you will need much of the same information for your FAFSA application,” he says.
You should also check early with the schools you’re planning to attend, so that you know what their deadlines are – so-called priority deadlines that can vary wildly from school to school – and which additional forms they might require. “Just bug the heck out of the financial aid department at your chosen school; the counselors are willing, able and eager to help you find scholarships you can apply for,” recommends Honn.
Get an early start
Even before your teen’s senior year, his or her high school counselor is a great first resource when it comes to understanding your financial aid options. William Evans is such a counselor at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy (LCPA) in the Kansas City Missouri School District. He recommends that students enroll in the A+ Program, a statewide Missouri initiative that allows qualifying graduates to receive financial assistance with tuition and fees for any public community college, vocational or technical school in Missouri. Like Garrett, he urges students to “be as early as you can, have financial aid completed by February and meet all deadlines.”
Scholarships and grants are the best form of financial aid because they don’t have to be repaid. That is why it is so important for your high school student to work hard, earn good grades and, if possible, take AP classes, as those can be tied to scholarship money. But again, some simple research can be just as valuable. “Something no one ever told me about is that there are childcare grants for students with children,” says Honn. She plans on applying for one at KU next year, because it could cover 100 percent of her daycare needs.
Other ways to prepare
If you’ve already saved money toward your child’s college education, does that mean he or she won’t qualify for aid? Not necessarily, since the EFC is determined more based on income than savings, and every student is at least eligible for a student loan. Still, saving for college early is definitely the best way to make it affordable. So-called 529 Plans are excellent tools operated by most states to help families set aside tax-free savings for their children’s college educations. Again, make sure you familiarize yourself with various plans before selecting one.
In today’s world, making a college education affordable may require some out-of- the-box thinking. If you ask yourself where a truly good education can be had for the best price, you might discover that starting out at a local community or junior college and then transferring to a four-year university works just as well, at a much lower cost. This is a trend Evans has seen evidence of this year at LCPA. “Technical schools are becoming more popular than in the previous years,” he says.
But if an Ivy League school is the best fit for your child, don’t be discouraged by the sticker price. If you get organized and do your research, the payoff could be substantial.
www.FinAid.org Student aid resource site
www.FastWeb.com FastWeb scholarship search
www.FAFSA.ed.gov Free Application for Federal Student Aid
(Avoid www.fafsa.com as it charges a fee)
www.FAFSA4caster.ed.gov For early estimate of eligibility for federal student aid
http://mcckc.edu/stuServices/eoc Educational Opportunity Center of Kansas City; assists mainly (but not exclusively) low-income students with the financial aid process
www.CollegeBoard.com Great tool for the college application process;
includes financial aid planner and scholarship search
Eva Melusine Thieme is a freelance writer and lives in Overland Park with her husband and four children.