Preparing financially for college

By Raymond Cox - Contributing Writer

Deciding where to go to college is a life changing decision. Figuring out how to pay for college and preparing your child for success are other life-changing decisions for parents and students.

After a 27-year teaching career in the public schools, 20 years serving as 4-H/Youth Development Agent, as a father of three college graduates and grandfather to a college junior and with 10 other grandchildren from first grade to one senior in high school, I realize the importance of getting ready for college early.

A two or four-year college degree is becoming more and more important for unlocking the doors to economic and educational opportunity in America today. Getting a college education requires a lot of time, effort and careful planning by parents and students, but it provides knowledge and skills students will use for the rest of their lives to help them succeed in whatever they undertake. By going to college, students may choose a profession of their liking, earn more money and get a good start in life.

Students who are not interested in going to a four-year college or university for a bachelor’s degree may benefit from the skills and knowledge two years of college provide to compete in today’s job market. These students may want to pursue a technical program in a community, junior or a technical college, which provides the skills and experiences employers seek.

Many high schools offer career-focused programs called tech-prep or dual-credit, such as Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College has developed. These programs coordinate high school course work at local colleges and, in some cases, give students the chance to learn in a real work setting. This way, the high school materials better prepare students for college-level work, and also start the student on a clear path toward a college degree.

By the time a student is in the fifth or sixth grade, families should start thinking about their children going to college. High school courses and grades count for admission to college, and preparation for a college education builds on knowledge and skills acquired in earlier years.

Your child should plan a high school course schedule early, in the sixth or seventh grade. It is important that college-bound middle and junior high school students take challenging courses because there is no substitute for taking challenging courses and working hard.

Taking advanced placement courses and tech-prep courses in any subject can give students added skills for college. Some parents, especially those who did not go to or finish college themselves, worry they can’t provide their children the guidance and support needed to get ready for college.

Donna and I both had college degrees, but I don’t think we knew all we needed to know to prepare our children to enter college. Most parents think college is too expensive, but if a student wants to go, money is available from state governments, colleges, and the U.S. Department of Education. Our children were never eligible for federal financial aid, and we did not know enough to look other places.

No one can be sure how much college costs will change over time, so be cautious when people tell you a particular amount. To get an idea of how much expenses are now for major colleges and universities in the United States, look carefully at the college guidebooks and catalogues.

Families are not alone in paying the costs of college. Every year millions of students apply for and receive financial aid. Because college represents an investment in our most precious resource, our children, no child who wants to go to college and is willing to work hard should be prevented by financial need. Here’s what to do:

• Start saving early. Saving money is the best way to prepare for meeting the cost of college. Set aside money each month, starting now, to build a college fund.

• Apply for financial aid. All students may apply for federal, state and other student financial aid to help them pay for college. The two major types of aid are grants or scholarships, which do not have to be repaid, and loans, which are available to students and parents and, like a car loan or a mortgage, must eventually be repaid. Where can you apply for financial aid? The federal government supplies over $46 billion annually in student aid, about 75 percent of all student aid. As the foundation of federal student financial aid, Pell Grants are the largest federal grant program for undergraduate education. Originally named the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, the program was created in 1972 by Senator Claiborne Pell, then-chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Pell Grants are targeted to the neediest families and are awarded using a tiered approach. Pell Grants award amounts can change yearly depending on a family’s changing financial circumstances, as reported in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

• First things first. A grant is not the same as a loan. A grant is free money. For that reason and that reason alone, you should always seek out grants (and scholarships, another form of free money) before taking out a student loan to attend college.

• When it comes to grants, the cream of the crop, top of the heap, most famous grant of them all is the Pell Grant. Pell Grants are needs-based, designed to provide low-income students access to post-secondary education.

• Amounts are determined by the students’ expected family contribution (EFC), the cost of going to the college the student will attend, whether the student is full- or part-time and whether or not the students attends a full year.

• Not everyone qualifies for a Pell Grant. Eligibility is based first on financial need. If you are eligible, the amount you receive will depend on four things: financial need (based on a formula), cost to attend your chosen college, your status as a full- or part-time student, and whether you will be in school all year or part-time.

• The maximum amount currently available is $5,550 per year. This amount can change from year to year, depending on congressional funding.

• Also, as of July 1, 2012, you cannot receive a Pell Grant for more than 12 semesters (or equivalent). On the other hand, the amount of any other student aid you receive does not affect the amount of your Federal Pell Grant. This means that if you qualify for $5,550 in Pell Grant funds, you will receive that amount, no matter how much money you receive from other aid sources.

Federal loans are available to both students and parents. Stafford Loans for students are either subsidized, for needy students, where some of the interest is paid by the government, or unsubsidized, where the student pays all of the accumulated interest. Other forms of aid include Perkins Loans and Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. The U.S. Department of Education also gives aid to colleges, who decide which of their students need it, most.

• Merit-based aid is given to students who meet requirements not related to financial needs, like doing well in high school or displaying artistic or athletic talent. Our son, Todd, received an athletic scholarship to attend Georgetown College to play basketball. The full scholarship paid for all four years Todd attended and played ball there. I also earned my college degree, books, room and board and tuition playing four years of basketball at the former Cumberland College in Williamsburg. High ACT scores and SAT scores coupled with high GPA’s and community service also lead to full scholarships at most colleges.

• Organizations, foundations and other groups offer scholarships to academically promising students, minorities, women and disabled students. All counselors in Harlan County Schools and Harlan Independent Schools are very helpful and have information on these scholarships. College financial aid offices located on all of SKCTC’s campus sites are also very helpful.

• Many opportunities exist for students to pay for a college education by serving their country during or after their college years. Service to AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps or ROTC entitles students to scholarships to cover educational expenses. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force each have its own military academy where tuition is free. The National Guard will pay off any and all student loans if the student enlists.

• Some colleges, like Alice Lloyd in Kentucky, are tuition-free. Others, such as Berea College, also in Kentucky, afford all students an opportunity to work for their tuition.

A college education is a major ingredient for success in the world today, and by taking the right courses and working hard, your child can be prepared to go to college. Building a strong foundation of high-level classes, starting with algebra and geometry by the eighth and ninth grades and continuing to take rigorous courses through high school will better prepare students for college admissions tests and college course work. By saving for college and taking advantage of financial aid from the Department of Education, colleges and states, you can change college from a dream into reality for your children if they are willing to take the challenge to do their best from the start.

For more information, contact the Harlan County Cooperative Extension Service Office or call Raymond Cox at 573-4464 or 273-0835. Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.

By Raymond Cox

Contributing Writer

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