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Financial planning for college complicated by recession

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

For high school students, who want to pursue higher education and need to be academically and financially savvy, the economic downturn has complicated the process, according to professionals in the field of education.

"We have experienced, firsthand, the impact of the economic downturn," said Jay Mooney, associate director of the University of Georgia's Office of Student Financial Aid.

Mooney said the number of Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completed by students at UGA, and their families, has risen more than 20 percent since the 2007-08 academic year. The FAFSA is the application through which students apply for federal grants and loans.

"And our number of Federal Pell Grant recipients has increased almost 40 percent," he said. "These increases have been experienced by colleges and universities across Georgia, and the nation." Mooney noted that the increased need for financial assistance may relate, in part, to the rising cost of tuition, which is fueled by the national economic recession.

The University System of Georgia (USG) recently reported tuition hikes as part of its strategy to help balance an education system hit hard by the continuing economic downturn. According to the USG, students attending Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Medical College of Georgia, or the University of Georgia, will have to pay $3,535 per semester next fall, up $500 from the fall of 2009. Those least affected by the increases include students who attend the state's two-year colleges. They are expected to pay $1,199 in tuition, a $50 increase from the fall of 2009.

"UGA's tuition will increase by $500 a semester effective this fall ... for newly entering students and those currently enrolled students, who are not still under the former 'fixed-for-four' tuition plan," said Mooney. "[However,] the cost of a student attending college includes much more than just the cost of the classes."

Other costs include room and board, books and supplies, and "miscellaneous living expenses." UGA's estimated cost of attendance for an incoming freshman, he added, was $18,000 for the fall and spring terms of the 2009-10 academic year. "This will increase as a result of the tuition increase ... as well as some increases due to the costs for room and board," he said.

Mooney said Georgia's HOPE Scholarship pays whatever the tuition is, and pays covered fees at the level that was in effect at each Georgia college or university, during the 2003-04 school year. The HOPE Scholarship -- funded through the Georgia Lottery and administered by the Georgia Student Finance Commission -- is available to students who meet certain academic requirements, including having a 3.0, or higher, grade-point average in high school.

Consistency in academic performance is a big factor in making a college education affordable, because it is a gateway to obtaining and maintaining college scholarships, according to Larry Sussberg, the owner of Huntington Learning Center in Peachtree City.

Sussberg listed five areas that he believes carry a lot of weight in the college-application process. He said high school grade-point average, class standing, course rigor, and leadership are as important for acceptance as college entrance exams.

He said the Huntington Learning Center, a diagnostic, K-12 supplemental, education provider, evaluates students' strengths and weaknesses in skill-sets deemed crucial to student success in their post-secondary education. Sussberg advises parents to get started as early as possible on preparing their children, scholastically, for college. Parents and students, education officials say, should also start early in preparing for the financial realities of college.

Students already on the brink of their college experiences should continue to be proactive in seeking to finance their education, said Mooney, the financial aid officer at UGA. "If they have not already done so, graduating students and their parents need to complete the web-based 2010-11 FAFSA [at www.fafsa.gov] immediately," he said. "Students who completed the FAFSA process during the January-to-March 2010 time frame are often in a position to be considered for additional federal, need-based funds, such as the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants and Federal Work-Study. The FAFSA also serves as an application for the HOPE Scholarship."

Rising seniors, and their parents, should attend any financial-aid workshops offered by their high schools, or nearby colleges, he said. He warned, however, that students and parents must guard against scams -- unsolicited mail or e-mail from organizations, or people, claiming that, for a fee, they will help the family with completing the FAFSA, or will be able to obtain a scholarship for the student.

"No families should pay anyone to help them complete the FAFSA, as all college financial-aid folks are more than willing to help, and answer questions, even if the student is not going to attend their college," said Mooney.

For more information about college planning, visit www.gacollege411.org.