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High school seniors might not be stressed about college just yet, but their parents certainly are, thinking about how to pay for their son’s or daughter’s higher education.
Most people cannot afford to pay for college directly out of pocket, so they rely on loans and grants, commonly referred to as financial aid, to help pay for school. There are many myths about financial aid, according to Jennifer Piqueira, assistant director of financial aid at Fairfield University, such as college is too expensive to afford.
“People ask, ‘How can I afford college in this economy?’” Piqueira said. “I want to demystify the financial aid process. It’s actually rather simple.”
After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law, financial assistance was provided to students seeking higher education. Federal money was made available to students nationwide.
College is not cheap, but is worth the investment, Piqueira said. According to studies, she insisted that, on average, a college graduate would make more than $800,000 more in their lifetime compared to someone who has only a high school diploma.
In 2008–2009, the average cost to attend a public four-year college and live on campus was around $15,000. To attend a four-year private school, including room and board, the cost is around $34,000. The expense can be offset with financial aid, she explained, adding that approximately $107 billion was distributed in financial assistance in 2007–2008.
While there are many types of grant and loan programs, the one that most needs to be filled out is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Along with the FAFSA form, a College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS) should be completed.
“Profiles can vary from school to school,” Piqueira advised. “And every year, you need to renew the FAFSA and your financial aid can change.”
Piqueira said it’s important to realize that a FAFSA application is free, and applicants should not pay any fees. She said scammers are always trying to charge a fee, so she wanted to make parents and students aware of those cons. Piqueira continued to say that it is “so important” to meet the financial aid deadlines, otherwise a student could be waitlisted and most often is then denied assistance. FAFSA forms cannot be submitted until after the first of the year the student plans to enroll in college. If they are sent earlier, they wind up in a “black hole.” Typically, the FAFSA forms are due by Feb. 15.
To stay organized, Piqueira recommend having a separate folder for each college to which a student is applying, and write important dates on the front. She said it was important to keep these folders throughout a student’s college career to keep all the financial aid data in one place.
To also offset college costs, Piqueira recommend applying for “every scholarship” possible. Guidance offices at the high school have books of each scholarship available, and Piqueira advised students to apply for them all.
“You should apply for as many as possible and just make millions of copies of the letters,” she said. “You never know what financial aid package might come from it.”
Over time, these grants and loans need to be paid back to the government or lending agency. While helping pay for college is a good thing, Piqueira said that she has seen bad cases of students graduating with over $100,000 in loans. Piqueira shared a story of a recent graduate who became an elementary school teacher and had a $2,400 monthly financial aid bill. She could not afford her own apartment, her own car, and was struggling financially. Piqueira said students should be aware of the payments they will have to make after school and not overextend the loans they accept. While a lot of money might be awarded, the student has the option to decline certain funding if they wish.
“I strongly stress the federal loans and encourage you to accept them before taking out other loans,” Piqueira said.
Yanjun Wang said she learned a lot from the financial aid presentation and felt she is better prepared to handle her daughter’s college enrollment next year. She said Piqueira’s presentation was “very helpful.”
“This was very important and useful,” Wang said. “I am just starting out, but this provided me with a lot of resources.”
Maura Wheeler said the program was “beneficial,” as she has two children ready to start college, one right after the other, and wanted to learn more about financial aid.
“We’re first-time parents of college students, so this was really beneficial,” Wheeler said. “It was extremely informative and (Piqueira) used terms we could understand.”
For more information on these programs and more, visit the Web at www.finaid.org.