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Debunking some common myths about financial aid

October 11, 2004|by ROSE RENNEKAMP

College application season is in full swing. Parents and students are filling out forms, editing essays, and checking their bank accounts.Students worry about getting a rejection letter, but some parents might worry more about what they will do once their son or daughter is actually accepted.

There's a lot of information out there - both good and bad - about paying for college. I want to clarify a few of the less-than-true statements you may have heard.

Myth #1: You can't afford college or you can't afford the college of your dreams.

Many students and parents see the tuition price, cost of living in the dorms and the price of textbooks and say there is just no way they could ever afford it. Let's face it - college is expensive. It's the largest single investment many families ever make. However, two out of three students get at least some financial aid to help make college more affordable, according to Sallie Mae, the largest education lender.

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Students can receive a combination of grants, loans, scholarships or Work-Study jobs to help reduce the cost of college. So don't ignore a college just because of its "sticker price." If a college has higher tuition, students often can get more financial aid to help cover the extra cost. For example, parents with incomes below $40,000 aren't expected to contribute to the cost of their child's education at Harvard.

Myth #2: You have to be very poor, very smart or uncommonly talented to qualify for financial aid.

Financial aid comes in many forms - grants and scholarships, which you don't have to repay, and loans, which you do have to repay. There is need-based aid for students who come from lower income families, and merit-based aid for students who excel in athletics, drama, debate, instrumental music, community service and many other areas.

You will find financial aid from a number of sources: the federal government, state government, the college or university itself, a parent's employer, and many other organizations. When students take the time to discover all of the possibilities, they can be surprised at what offers for aid they might receive.

One good source for information is www.ed.gov/finaid.html on the Web, where you can get The Student Guide: Financial Aid. The guide also is available in print at many public libraries and schools, or by calling 1-800-433-3243.

Myth #3: You can get more scholarships by paying someone to search for you.

Scholarship scams are everywhere. Beware of any group or individual that guarantees a scholarship if you pay a fee. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission found 12 of 53 Web sites marketing scholarships had what it called "dubious claims." There are many very good, free scholarship sources - check out www.fast

web.com or www.finaid.org on the Web.

Myth #4: My child will pay for college herself, so it doesn't matter how much money I make.

Most need-based financial aid is based on parents' income and assets. Most schools require students to fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, in order to qualify for need-based aid. That form asks for income information similar to what you need for your income taxes. You can find it by logging on www.fafsa.ed.gov. After submitting the FAFSA, students receive a report that shows how much the government expects you to pay towards your child's education. If you're not ready to actually file yet, you can get an estimate of your expected family contribution by going to www.act.org/fane/.

Myth #5: You can wait until you get accepted to a college before worrying about financial aid.

Most financial aid is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. Since most students will search for some type of financial aid, you shouldn't wait too long to get started.

Looking for financial aid is probably not the way that most teenagers want to spend their free time. But a little work now can go a long way in paying for an education tomorrow.

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