While the national conversation around the importance of continuing education past high school gains much attention, so to does the issues surrounding paying for it. Regardless of politics, the fact remains that paying for college stands as one of the biggest challenges for students and their families.
Getting a head-start on putting together a financial plan is always a good idea for any prospective student. Here are some tips for families to consider now to ensure that they limit the amount of student loan debt accrued while still in school:
Borrow only the amount you need
Many borrowers make the mistake of taking out more loans than necessary. To avoid doing this, create a budget to determine how much loan money will be needed and avoid using loan money to pay for unnecessary expenses, such as trips to the movie theater or expensive dinners.
Consider a part-time job
If a student’s academic schedule allows, they should consider finding a part-time job on campus to help supplement the cost of unexpected expenses. Be sure to check with the financial aid office to see if students qualify for work study, which gives the opportunity to work on campus.
Compare award letters
Once a student receives their financial aid award letter, compare loan offers by reading the fine print. If federal loans are not enough to cover the cost of education and a student is considering private loan offers, be sure to shop around for the best interest rates and repayment options.
Take college credit while in high school
Taking AP, dual credit or college credit courses while in high school can give students a head start on achieving your intended major. Find out the general education requirements at the college a student plans to attend and take courses that will fulfill those requirements. Doing this can help students graduate from college early, which means borrowing less in student loans.
Consider paying loan interest while still in school
Students who start making interest payments on their student loans while still in college will reduce the total amount they have to repay after graduation. Interest payments are usually manageable. By paying off interest as they go, students can keep outstanding interest from capitalizing on any balances. Allowing interest to capitalize increases loan balances essentially requiring students to pay interest on the interest that has been accrued!
Apply for scholarships
Scholarships can pay for portions or all of a student’s education during an academic year. But students can’t earn scholarships if they don’t apply! Find scholarships specific to a school or department by talking to a representative from the school’s financial aid office or department chair. In addition, the following sites are just a few places to check for scholarships:
- Fast Web – www.FastWeb.com
- Big Future by the College Board – https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org
- Sallie Mae Scholarship Search – www.salliemae.com/scholarships
- Scholarship America – https://scholarshipamerica.org/
Choose a school that fits into the family budget
Review the financial aid packages from the colleges where students applied and consider how much needs to be borrowed in order to attend each. Keep the goal in mind and select a college where loan debt can be kept at a reasonable level against future income potential.
Get more tips in Iowa College Aid’s “Path to College.”
For many students going to college, private student loans will be an inevitable fact of life. Private loans should be used to fill in the gaps that college savings, grants and other scholarships don’t cover in a student’s final aid plan. As a result, many students leave college with a nagging fear of the loan repayments that await.
Rather than start on the wrong foot when it comes to loans, students can get a healthy perspective of both their responsibilities and ways to more quickly get on top of their debt with these tips that destroy the common myths about student loans:
If I need help understanding or dealing with student loans, my former college or university won’t help me. Even though a student may have graduated from a school, their financial aid office is still a great resource to help explain loan repayment options and connect students with loan servicers. Financial aid offices have a vested interest in helping students understand and stay on track with their loan repayment, as high default rates can negatively impact a school. So if a student starts to get confused by paperwork, the financial aid department is a great place to start.
I’ll never pay off my loans. Those first payments after graduation may feel a bit overwhelming, and will likely be a large part of any budget as a student gets started in their career. Salary increases, paying extra when budget allows and plain old perseverance will lead to progress. Income-based plans and automatic payments are just two options to “set and forget” loan repayment as a part of monthly budgeting.
Consolidating my student loans into one loan is a good idea. Loan consolidation may offer convenience, but often students will find themselves in situations which either are not eligible for consolidation or can actually negatively impact their repayment. Loan servicers will already use a combined billing for students with Federal loans so that the students have one payment to make and federal loans can’t be combined with private loans in a federal direct consolidation loan. In some cases, consolidating Perkins Loans can lead to students losing repayment benefits that the loan provides.
Filing for bankruptcy means not having to repay student loans. While Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy does help protect against some loans, most borrowers will not be able to discharge their student loans unless it can be proven that the loan repayment will cause an undue financial hardship. Rather than negatively impact a credit record with a bankruptcy, students should consider finding more flexible payment plans that best meet their needs during repayment.
Get more tips and advice to help in your college planning with Iowa College Aid’s “The Path to College.”
They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.
Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.
Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.
Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.
- Find “free money”
Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
- Consider loans and work study options separately
To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
- Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
- Determine if awards are for one year or more.
Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
- Make sure the award letter is final.
In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.
Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.
Many students see getting to college as an educational goal achieved. Once they get there, though, stress and other issues related to life on a college campus becomes a new challenge to be overcome. An increasing number of studies show that many college freshman give up on their education due to mental health problems, as that variety of pressures a new environment can make students think that school is more than they can bear. Throw winter into the mix and it can become even more difficult for students to maintain their path on the course to success.
Here are some easy ways for students to deal with the change of season while staying on top of their mental health during the winter:
The usual routine of leaving a warm dorm bed minutes before class won’t cut it come winter time. Take at least 5-10 minutes extra to account for ice on your path to class, snow and time to admire the cute squirrels. Not only will this change help students overcome the perils of winter, but a change in routine is an easy way to get out of a rut that can lead to depression.
Maintain a healthy diet
Physical health is tied to mental health. While dining halls might offer more hot chocolate and marshmallows during the colder days, comfort food doesn’t always mean healthy food. A 2010 study found that the quality of diet impacts levels of depression in college students more than other factors such as socioeconomic or family issues. 
Take personal time, but don’t be afraid to talk to someone
College is challenging, but it’s important that students remember that they can succeed. Having support both from home and campus can mean a great deal to students dealing with the stress and emotional difficulties of facing college on their own. Having time to sit back and watch TV, read a book or just relax is an important part of a student’s day. And while calling home or writing letters or emails to touch base with family is important, the support of friends, social groups or even the mental health services available on campus can be more important in staying mentally healthy and addressing the depression that can come with winter. Talking to someone and asking for support is NOT a sign of weakness, it’s an important part of dealing with difficulties and staying on the road to success.
Since November is Financial Aid Awareness Month, we’re providing students and families with tips and information for helping pay for college at all ages: high school senior, current college student, adult learner and more. While finding ways to get financial help with your college education is important, making sure students use that money wisely is possibly even more important.
Getting the most of your money in school is vital to keeping your finances under control. Scholarships and grants might only be allowed for specific school costs, while student loans will have to be paid back (with interest) after graduation. So having a good game plan when it comes to finances in college can pay off not only in school, but for years after graduation.
- Make a budget. Commit to creating a monthly budget AND live within your budget each month.
- Utilize a calendar. A calendar is not just for plotting your class schedule, campus organizational meetings, and social events. A calendar can be an effective tool for managing the due dates for your monthly bills—rent, cell phone bill, car payment, utility bill, etc. Making note of due dates helps to ensure that you will not miss a payment and potentially harm your credit history.
- Shop around for text books. Many bookstores, as well as online retailers, offer used textbooks for much cheaper than buying a “new” textbook. If you won’t want to keep your textbook for future reference after a class has concluded, consider renting a textbook for the semester.
- File the FAFSA on-time, every year. If you plan on attending college in the upcoming school year, be sure to file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) prior to your college’s priority deadline. Doing so will ensure you are considered for all financial aid opportunities the school has to offer.
- Get a part-time job. A part-time job can allow you to meet your basic needs, as well as reducing the amount of student loans you need to borrow. Working 15 hours per week at a part-time job can dramatically reduce your need for student loans to cover living expenses. Additionally, most colleges have numerous on-campus employment opportunities for students.
- Plan early for a summer internship. During the first week of the spring semester, visit your college’s career placement office and discuss your desire for an internship during the upcoming summer with a career advisor. Career advisors can provide information about companies looking for interns, as well as information regarding career fairs on campus. Many internships pay a stipend or salary which can help pay for expenses while you’re in college and can lead to a job after graduation.
- Know your financial aid options. Visit the Financial Aid office on your campus during the first three weeks of the spring semester to discuss your current year’s financial aid and to check into scholarships and grants available for next year.
- Be a savvy shopper. At the grocery store, opt for the store-brand product. It is often significantly cheaper than its name-brand counterpart, and the money you save can be used to pay interest on your student loans or keep you from having to borrow more loans next year.
- Protect your Personal Information. If you aren’t already, start safeguarding your Social Security Number, credit card and bank account numbers, along with any other non-public personal information. Shredding sensitive information will ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and can help protect you from identity theft.
- Separate Needs from Wants. Although it may seem like you need that morning latte from the local coffee house to start your day; at $3.50 per day, that adds up to $1,277.50 per year! Make your financial choices based on what is necessary to meet your basic needs, and avoid wasting money and borrowing more to satisfy your wants.
Even implementing some of these tips into your regular routine will turn you into a smarter consumer when it comes to money and help set you up for a bright financial future.
College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.
Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.
To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:
While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.
As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.
There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.
The new starting date for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is just about here. Completing the FAFSA, though, isn’t the end of the road for college preparation. Throughout the school year, students have opportunities to visit with colleges and find out more about what each school offers and how that school does (or doesn’t) relate to a student’s plan for their future.
Making that match is called “college fit” and it can mean the difference between getting the most of education after high school and frustrations that could lead to transferring schools or, worse, not completing a degree.
The good news: Colleges offer tours that allow students to see the campus, talk to professors and students and get answers to questions about their education. Even better: Students can get much of that information without even leaving their own high school thanks to college fairs held throughout the year. These events, often held at the local high school, include representatives from schools both near and far looking to put their best foot forward for prospective students.
College fairs are the first step toward finding college fit and students who attend college fairs will get a head-start on making a smart choice on where to go to school. As with anything, approaching the event with a game plan will help students get even more out of college fairs.
Start with these five tips:
- Is a college strong in a student’s major? Not all high school students are going to have an idea of what their major will be, but it helps to have some idea of what they might be interested in as a career. If students have an idea, they can ask schools about programs in those areas. Some colleges specialize in certain majors or are known for having strong programs in particular fields.
- Does a school’s size matter? Larger schools often mean more students in classes (sometimes over 100 students), but a bustling community. Smaller colleges might have fewer students, but that might mean more direct interaction with teachers and smaller class sizes. A student can talk to representatives at a college fair to get an idea of the school’s size and start to consider which appeals to them.
- What’s college life like? While a visit to the actual campus will give students the best idea of what life is like at a given school, college fairs frequently include representatives from schools who are either current students or recent graduates. Of course, these representatives will always look to emphasize what makes their school better than the rest, but talking to college students is a great way for high school students to get an early idea of what life is like in college.
- Take all the materials available. Schools visiting college fairs will have lots of giveaways: stickers, squeezeballs, pens, and more. But the most important materials to take away from college fairs are the informational brochures that talk more about the school. These materials might not answer every question a student might have about a school, but they will frequently include websites or links to other resources to learn more if interested.
- Make notes, take it all in, but don’t rush to any decisions. College fairs are the introduction to schools for many students and representatives are chosen by schools to present their school in the most attractive way possible. It’s great if students are inspired to learn more about schools after a college fair. But rather than eliminate schools from their list, students would be better off ranking a list of schools that grabbed their attention and listing the reasons why that school might be a good fit. From there, it’s easy to start researching further into which schools should really make the cut.
For more tips and advice for preparing and planning for college, as well as financial aid and college information, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College.” You can read, download or order your own copy on our website.