College Connect: Finding Cents

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By Kelly Dickey, Ball State University

In my family, college wasn’t an option – it was just part of the plan. Even at age 5 I remember my folks saying that a four-year university was in my future. And being the upper-middle class family we were — it would be on their dime.

We had saved for college. All the plans were made. But then my dad unexpectedly left halfway through my senior year of high school. Somehow the savings went away, too, and suddenly mom and I were wondering how to afford that college education.

It’s a problem that will sound familiar to a lot of families. Three years after the recession technically ended we’re still looking at 8.5 percent unemployment. Parents still struggle to make ends meet, sometimes having to drain even college savings.

You can see that in the number of people using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. A report last year said FAFSA filings increased by nearly half in the past three years.

I’m one of the statistics. We hadn’t planned on seeking financial aid, but when our family came apart, we reconsidered. I realized that the end of my parents’ marriage meant I qualified for aid. Not only that, but I got almost a free ride, thanks to state and federal grants obtained through FAFSA.

Before the divorce I never would have thought I could get financial aid — a mistake many college students make every year.

In 2007-08, an estimated 2.3 million students who would have been eligible for grant money missed out because they never applied.

Some of them may have been like me, thinking they didn’t qualify. But a close look at the FAFSA rules and a few calls to financial aid experts turns up two important truths:

First, almost anybody who looks can find help of some kind.

Second, you shouldn’t have to pay anybody to help you apply.

School is pricy enough, in other words, without having to shell out extra cash for help in filling out financial aid applications.

“There are a lot of people who want to go out and pay [for application help],” said John McPherson, director of Scholarships and Financial Aid at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

“There are a lot of people wanting to make money, and they’re offering services and charging people.”

Don’t fall for it. Head to your school’s financial aid office, first.

Loan, scholarship and grant experts have years of experience and will help you for free. They’ll tell you where to find scholarships — instead of paying for search services, since there are plenty of free search engines that work just as well.

Online, you can find financial aid experts available by email, telephone and even in chat rooms, including the FAFSA site.

Wherever you start, do yourself a favor and write down one thing first: Your deadlines.

FAFSA and scholarship applications can be submitted as early as January, and you don’t want to waste all your work by not clicking “submit” on time. Many states and universities have earlier “priority” or final deadlines, so be vigilant.

Study your options. I never thought I’d be able to receive aid, but I’m in my fourth year at college and haven’t had to pay a cent.

In four years it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned:

If you want to go to school, educate yourself first.




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