By Johnny Jackson
The summer is a good time for students to begin planning for their post-secondary careers, according to financial aid and education officials.
Rising high school seniors should begin as soon as possible, researching financial alternatives to fund their college educations, according to Jay Mooney, associate director for operations in the Office of Student Financial Aid at the University of Georgia.
"For rising seniors, it's really a good time for them to start that process, and get with their high school counselors," Mooney said.
Luella High School Principal George Eckerle said preparing for college begins as soon a student's freshman year of high school.
"I know that the minute they walk through this door they begin to determine which colleges they will go to," Eckerle said.
Eckerle said he spoke to rising Luella freshmen, eighth-graders at the neighboring Luella Middle School in Locust Grove, last month about what they should expect as they enter high school.
"I challenged them to research their colleges of choice and lay the ground work," he said. "Freshman year is when it starts. It's more responsibility on them [in high school]."
Eckerle said students who fall behind in their freshman year of high school increase their likelihood of falling behind later in life. He added that administrators, and counselors, meet with students throughout the school year to keep students on their chosen career tracks.
He said the best preparation for students desiring to attend college is to read outside of school, and develop good study habits and time-management skills.
"The biggest thing is to be prepared, be on time and do what your [teachers] ask," said Eckerle.
"As far as applying for student aid, students really need to get on it," added Mooney. "The ones that have already graduated high school should complete the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. We always encourage students to start the federal aid application process on Jan. 1, preceding their freshman year of college."
Mooney said the application process can be competitive, as those applying early are more likely to receive aid than those who wait until the last minute. He said students who complete the FAFSA the earliest have the better shot at additional federal funds.
He suggested students begin, in high school, researching various means of financial assistance, including scholarships, work study programs and student loans.
He said students may also be eligible for Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program, which covers costs for students who maintain certain academic standards. The HOPE application only takes 15 minutes to complete, he added, and students remain eligible by maintaining a 3.0 grade-point average.
"We also recommend students avail themselves of the free Internet to look for scholarships," Mooney said.
He said there are several different scholarship and grant opportunities available at web sites like FastWeb.com, a free scholarship-posting web site which is routinely updated.
"Never pay anyone to apply for a scholarship," Mooney advised.
Enrolled college students may also learn about financing alternatives by going to the financial aid office web site at their college or university, he said, adding that students should call or drop by other offices as well.
The University of Georgia, for instance, has a career center which helps students find on- and off-campus jobs or apprenticeships while they attend school. Mooney said the university also has a peer financial counseling program for students.
For in-state students, Mooney explained, the largest expense is still their room and board.
"Students should try to stay away from credit cards," he said. And "parents should check with whomever they are working with to see if there is anything available in terms of scholarship opportunities or funding for their children."