The National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education reports that the cost of higher education has risen dramatically. Between 1987 and 1996, the cost of attending public institutions rose by 132 percent, and the cost for private institutions increased by 99 percent both during a period of relatively low inflation with a modest 52 percent increase in family disposable income.

These increases have made it more difficult for families to pay for college. But difficult is not the same as impossible. The notion that a lack of money will prevent a student from getting a good college education is a myth.

While not every student can afford to attend an Ivy League school, opportunities do exist for students to get a good education no matter what their families’ finances might be. Taking advantage of those opportunities, however, requires proper planning, a little creativity, being smart about leveraging finances and extensive homework.

College Parents of America (CPA) is the only national membership association dedicated to helping parents prepare for and put their children through college easily, economically and safely. College Parents of America guides parents from the time they begin saving and preparing their children for college all the way through graduation. It provides new information on savings strategies and financial aid; offers advice on the application and selection process; advises college parents on the individual opportunities and challenges they will encounter during their students’ college years; and serves as the advocate of parents and higher education on Capitol Hill and the nation’s campuses.

As a resource, advisor and advocate for parents of both current and future college students who are throughout the United States, College Parents of America offers eight suggestions to help families pay for higher education:

1. Start early with saving plans.
Even if parents start by putting aside $25-50 a month, the earlier you start, the more significant your savings will be. In addition to the traditional saving and investment options available through your local bank and Wall Street, you may wish to evaluate education IRAs and your state’s prepaid college tuition program or savings trusts plan to determine if you wish to add them to your overall college savings strategy. 

2. Comparison shop.
Some schools are more affordable than others. Education is costly, but there are good schools in each state that are actually competing for students. Once your student narrows the selection down to one or two schools that most closely meet academic desires, interests and specific cost parameters, don’t hesitate to re-contact the school(s) on the question of getting the best financial aid package to reduce costs. 

3. Attend a more affordable school for the first two years.
Students can reduce costs significantly by attending a community college or junior college for two years and then transferring to a four-year institution. With proper planning, most if not all, of the course credits will transfer enabling students to complete their degrees in the same amount of time while saving significantly on tuition. 

If your sights are on that more elite or costly university, financial resources can also be leveraged by attending a less expensive four-year institution for two years and later transferring. Again, regular consultation with both schools is required to ensure all credits will transfer and savings are not reduced by the need to attend an additional semester to graduate. 

4. Consider letting Uncle Sam pay the bills.
Military service makes education affordable. A full tour of active duty prior to attending school can be worth as much as $65,000 in education benefits. However, joining ROTC (1-800-USA-ROTC), an Armed Forces reserve or the National Guard (1-800-GO-GUARD) can pay for college costs as well without interrupting studies. 

Another option is to seek an appointment to any of the five federal service academies (the U.S. Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, Military and Naval academies). All offer outstanding educational programs at almost no cost in exchange for military service upon graduation, often in a reserve capacity. Check with your local congressional representative’s office (www.house.gov) for specifics. 

5. Seek out work/study programs.
Identify those colleges which have collaborated with businesses and government in providing paid internships or programs in which students can alternate working a semester in their field of study for a pay check and college credit, and then attend classes the following semester. Some schools also provide free or reduced tuition in exchange for working part time on campus. 

6. Pursue scholarships from multiple sources.
College Parents of America recommends starting college, grant and scholarship research in the sophomore year of high school or earlier. An advance knowledge of the various eligibility criteria allows the student to conduct civic work, explore areas of study or interests, establish academic goals or take other steps required to qualify for specialized grants and scholarships. 

To start your search, contact your student’s high school guidance office. Although colleges, themselves, are the primary sources of scholarships and aid, there are many national as well as local grants available through civic and service clubs, businesses, organizations and foundations. The guidance office most likely can give you information on local and regional scholarships. These scholarships often are handled through the high school, local civic organizations and foundations, and may not appear in any national databases because they are either new or very localized. Therefore, you might wish to add organizations such as your local Rotary, Kiwanis, Urban League, Lions, Knights of Columbus, Chamber of Commerce, Junior League, Jaycees and all other groups with related civic focus to your contact list. 

Another highly recommended contact is your employer, since many companies establish scholarships to aid the children of employees. Your place of worship, local library and the Internet are other valuable resources for your student’s scholarship search. College Parents of America’s website, www.collegeparents.org, (look under “More Resources”), provides links to sites on the internet that provide information on thousands of available scholarships and grants. 

Next, contact the colleges your student is considering. It’s best to start with the financial aid office. Ask if they have any special scholarships based on academic merit, special talents or athletic skills that are not awarded on a financial need basis. Most colleges establish their policies in the spring or summer for recruitment of the freshman class that will enter a year from the upcoming September. Therefore, you should re-contact the financial aid office in the fall of your student’s senior year in high school to get an update on any changes in scholarships, their criteria and application processes. 

Every family should complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) immediately after January 1st of the student’s senior year in high school to determine if the family financially qualifies for assistance. The form can be acquired from the student’s guidance office or online through College Parents of America’s website. Parents whose students financially qualify for financial assistance should be aware that numerous colleges and universities often reduce an individual’s financial aid by the amount of outside grants and scholarships. College Parents of America’s website identifies colleges that will maximize private sector aid, many by actually matching private sector scholarships and grants awarded to the student (see the Dollars for Scholars link under More Resources). 

Finally, be wary of scholarship search companies and software they sell for a fee. There may be a few credible sources, but many of these companies promise more than they can deliver. And often times, the information they gather is just as easily accessible to you on your own. If you choose this route, it is in your best interest to inquire about guarantees and ask for details in writing. If you then elect to consider a service, make sure that you request the names and telephone numbers of previous customers in your area and contact them to determine their satisfaction. 

7. Leverage scholarship dollars.
Numerous colleges and universities reduce an individual’s financial aid by the amount of outside grants and scholarships. Visit College Parents of America’s website (under More Resources)to identify Dollars for Scholars’ collegiate partners that will maximize private sector aid, many by actually matching private sector scholarships and grants.

8. Borrowing for college.
Low interest federal loans can offer further leverage in financing college. But families should avoid overextending. It was suggested at a recent conference sponsored by the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Education Resources Institute that cumulative borrowing not exceed the student’s anticipated starting annual salary following college. 

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