Finding the funds for college is doable, with research and creative thinking

By Joseph Gallivan New York Times Columnist, Published on August 17, 2022 see original HERE

Applying for college is stressful for high-school juniors and seniors, but figuring out how to pay for it all can be a nightmare for parents and kids alike. It’s even harder for students who are the first in their family to go to college.

The US system is a complex market of brand name schools, private and state schools, for-profit colleges and virtually free community colleges. The Post asked the experts for their tips on getting a good college education without breaking the bank — or your heart.

Federal aid

Jennifer Finetti, the director of outreach and advocacy for ScholarshipOwl, said paying for college begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which tells the government and the colleges you’re applying to how much money you have. (It can pull from your tax returns of up to two years prior.)

Don’t miss these five FAFSA points: deadline, federal grants, federal loans, state grants and work study.

FAFSA opens every year on Oct. 1 and closes in June, but most people should fill it in by February to benefit. (Students must fill it out each year they are in college.)

“It’s important to meet the FAFSA deadline for the states of colleges they are applying in,” Finetti said.

FAFSA lets you know if you qualify for Federal Pell Grants (that’s where the government pays part of your tuition), and any other federal grants.

“That will also make them eligible for federal student loans, should that be of interest to them,” she added.

FAFSA can show if you are eligible for grants in your state as well. “So, if you are a New York resident, and you are applying to in-state public universities in New York, you want to make sure you submit your FAFSA, because that may make you eligible for state grants offered by New York.”

“Also, on the FAFSA, there’s a checkbox where a student can indicate if they’re interested in Federal Work-Study, which is a job on campus. A lot students don’t realize [this].”

If you don’t check it, you might still be eligible for Work-Study, but you won’t be in the pool for those jobs when you arrive at college.

Finally, Finetti has some basic advice, in a world where four years of state college can cost $100,000 all-in while out-of-state can set you back $200,000.

“If the student can possibly go to an in-state, public university instead of their dream school, that’s not out of state, or that’s a private school, they can save significantly.”

Scholarships

In their senior year of high school, but also throughout college, students should apply for scholarships. That way they can not only supplement their income, but also create bonds with the groups giving out the scholarships, whether a local business group or a foundation. (For instance, the Elks Most Valuable Student Scholarship could lead to mentoring and introductions as you embark on your career.)

Just Googling “scholarships” brings up a torrent of information. “The process is overwhelming and tedious, and students get so frustrated that they often give up really early in the process,” said Finetti. “Then parents are left exasperated, saying, ‘Hey, you need to apply for scholarships, right?’”

But everyone can benefit from applying, and the more you apply the better you get at it.
“And pretty soon you’ll have a maybe you’ll have six to 10 essays on different topics, that you can tweak over and over again, and keep submitting for new scholarships with similar essay prompts,” she said. “They might ask about what you would do to solve the climate change problem, right? It doesn’t matter what you’re majoring in.”

Some scholarships don’t require an essay, just a social media post.

“To the social media scholarships, your major is rarely of interest. They usually want you to present something creative and fun about yourself, or to talk about something heartfelt. For example, the $1,500 “Make a Difference Scholarship” from Future Minds Fund asked students to share examples of what they did in their community to make a difference,” she continued.

Don’t wait until you are accepted to colleges to apply. Spring is usually past the scholarship deadline.

Also, don’t forget the crazy scholarships — for being tall, for making a duct tape prom dress, for doing Google Doodles, doing rodeo and playing Minecraft— but always avoid scholarships that ask for an application fee.

529 savings plans

All the experts recommended 529 plans, which are college-savings plans that invest after-tax contributions in mutual funds, ETFs and other similar investments.

The investment grows on a tax-deferred basis and can be withdrawn tax-free to pay for qualified higher education expense. Parents should start early, however, and put in $150 to $350 a month per student.

Note that 529s count against you for federal aid, and the fees can be high.

Private loans

If all else fails, private loans are available from the likes of Sallie Mae and Credible (currently at 4.5% APR), credit unions, banks and online lenders, for students with good credit and a reliable cosigner, such as a parent.

But, experts warn they are a last resort. They lack the easier terms of federal loans, such as loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment plans. Experts say they should be considered only after federal loans have been exhausted.

Working

Students often pick up part-time jobs to pay their way in college, from shifts at Quiznos or Starbucks to “work-study,” which is employment directly from the college with gigs like cafeteria server or librarian.

Federal Work-Study provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need. The program encourages work related to the student’s course of study as well as community service work. The wage range is $15.00 to $23.50 per hour.

Benefits

Students should look into whether they are eligible for debit card-based Food Stamps or SNAP. If you’re living in an apartment and you are lower income, you might be able to qualify for discounts on your utilities.

Shop around

Mark Salisbury is the co-founder and CEO of TuitionFit, which tries to create real college price transparency by sharing actual pricing information. (It’s like a Kelley Blue Book of college costs.)

Salisbury advised identifying which schools you can afford to go to before applying, rather than getting into a “dream school” and then panicking and borrowing large sums when colleges reveal their true pricing.

“First thing any family should do in the senior year of high school is find an expected family contribution calculator online and figure out what the colleges are going to see,” he said. “Colleges assign prices using two factors: your family financial need or the EFC; and academic merit, which is the mix of standardized test score and high school GPA.”

The second thing is to sit down and talk about what you want to pay for college what your price range is.

Also, when colleges accept you, they reveal their true price.

“It is absolutely critical that families understand that when colleges send you a price, that price is not etched in stone,” said Salisbury. “You say, ‘Is there a way you can bring your price down?’ And those colleges are already prepared to do that, it’s built into their pricing model.”

The college will usually offer more aid, although renewing it can require high grades.
Salisbury says students should take dual credit courses in high school, which will save them retaking them in college.

“There’s a something called the CLEP test in a number of different subjects. If you pass it, a number of colleges will give you credit for that course. If you finish college a year early, you’ll save tens of thousands of dollars.”

Bahar Akman Imboden, Ph.D., managing director and founding member at the Hildreth Institute — a Boston-based think tank that believes all students should be able to obtain a high-quality, zero-debt postsecondary education — recommended running schools through the government-run site College Scorecard which makes comparisons easy.

“It shows the price charged for different brackets of income. You might be looking like $80,000, and a student feels they’ll never be able to pay $80,000 per year and not apply. But actually, they had very generous is financial aid for those who are first generation or underrepresented and students with financial difficulties,” said Imboden. “You can also see the earning potential, average debt and graduation rate — if it’s low, it’s a warning sign for students.”

Imboden also recommends the Excelsior Scholarship, which is offered by the New York state government, for a tuition-free ride at CUNY and SUNY schools for families that make less than $125,000.

“The [New York] state university system is excellent; the city university system is also,” Imboden said. “And the pipeline from community college to the four-year degrees is quite effective for students who might not know whether after two years the degree will be enough for them to find a job.”

New York also has a 529 college savings program, and New York City public school students are automatically enrolled in the Save for College Program, which matches them up to $200 in the NYC Kids Rise plan.

“It’s not necessarily the money that is in the account that matters, it is more the activation to go to college,” said Imboden. “The kids start having this college-bound identity, knowing that this account in their name.”