Battling rising costs for higher education

These days, students and their families are increasingly aware of the costs of obtaining a college education relative to its quality, and school counselors and college financial aid advisors alike, are noting the trends.

An institution’s branding may no longer be the driving force behind its becoming a student’s primary choice to attend. Many cash-strapped families are shopping for colleges with the best value, according to Joan Prisk, a school counselor at Locust Grove High School, in Locust Grove.

“Definitely, with today’s economy, tuition is a factor in seeking college,” said Prisk.

Locust Grove graduated about 170 seniors in its first graduating class last spring, she said. Most of them will go on to pursue a post-secondary education. About 30 percent are eligible for the HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) Scholarship, which pays a portion of the tuition.

“The parents are more actively seeking outside scholarships to supplement the HOPE Scholarship,” she added. Prisk said students are up against rising tuition, and costs for room and board. She said some students are deciding to live at home and attend institutions nearby, as a way to cut down on the costs associated with housing and meal plans.

“Meal plans and housing exceed the cost of tuition,” said Prisk.

On-campus housing costs rose this year, from last year, at Clayton State University, in Morrow, according to Pat Barton, financial aid director at Clayton State.

“You definitely want to get a value for your money,” Barton said. “At Clayton State, we are still one of the best values that a student can get in education. Our tuition is still low, but you also get value for it.”

The financial aid director acknowledged that the HOPE Scholarship and financial aid, by themselves, are not enough to cover tuition, fees, and housing. “Students are definitely having to come out of pocket more, or go into debt more with student loans,” Barton said. “For some, there is almost no way for them to cover the cost of attending college without a loan.

“Our loan volume has increased every year for at least the past five years,” she continued. “And in the last two or three years, as the economy has taken a nose dive, we definitely have seen more and more students applying for financial aid.”

Barton said approximately 80 percent of Clayton State’s roughly 6,800 students have received some form of financial assistance through the financial aid office, from institutional scholarships, to federal student loans.

“More and more, freshmen are either choosing to attend college part-time, or apply for student loans,” she said. “They do anticipate being able to find jobs to pay off loans. But their short-term goal is just to finish their education.”

Barton explained that students are having to pay increased tuition costs statewide, because of state budget shortfalls and funding cuts, some of which are absorbed in tuitions. Getting an early jump on the financial aid process is helpful, when weighing one’s educational options.

“No matter what kind of institution you want to go to, do some research at Georgia College 411 about the institution, and apply for scholarships online,” Barton advised. “They [students] need to start in their junior and senior year, because many scholarship applications require the writing of essays.

She encourages high school seniors, enrolling in college for Fall 2012, should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) as soon as their parents have filed taxes for the new year.

“The earlier, the better,” Barton said. “And never assume your financial aid is in place. Within three to four weeks, after completing the FASFA, they need to follow up with the institutions that they listed on the FASFA, because procedures vary at each school.”

Locust Grove High’s Joan Prisk echoed that advice. “We ask all students in January of their senior year to complete the FASFA,” said Prisk. “Then, they need to speak with their college financial aid officer about college scholarships and other scholarships they can acquire.

“Scholarships may be for intellectual ability, a particular talent, or athletic ability, and there are a lot of scholarships for charity and community service,” she said. “Every child doesn’t have to be an athlete or a scholar.”

Prisk also pointed to opportunities for families to get a head start on funding their college education by putting away money incrementally for college. The Path2College 529 Plan is a statewide college savings program, to which many Georgia families contribute, according to Path2College 529 Plan Director Shannon Ferguson. The program, launched in 2002, is managed by TIAA-CREF Tuition Financing, Inc., which is part of the New York-based TIAA-CREF financial services organization.

“Historically, Path2College 529 Plan contributions and new account openings have been the strongest during the holidays and also during the first quarter of the year, due to the tax deduction deadline,” said Ferguson. “Despite the change in the economy, over the past 10 years, families have consistently contributed to accounts during these times.”

Ferguson said that, in 2009 and 2010, roughly 28 percent of the plan’s contributions and 30 percent of new accounts were opened during the fourth quarter of the year.

“We like to encourage people to give a contribution to a 529 college savings plan instead of, or in addition to, a toy or other gift,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to help families prepare for future college costs, and college is a meaningful gift that lasts a lifetime.”

To find more about financial aid and scholarship opportunities, visit www.gacollege411.org. For more about the Path2College 529 Plan, visit www.path2college529.com.