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Figuring costs, paying for college

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Eligible students, who are interested in attending college, can get financial help, in spite of increased tuition costs, and declining state and federal financial support.

"When the economy is down and jobs are hard to get, enrollment in colleges automatically increases," said Jay Mooney, associate director for operations in the Office of Student Financial Aid at the University of Georgia. "More students, then, are relying on financial aid to help pay for that education."

Mooney and other college finance professionals have outlined ways potential students can go about paying for their education in these austere times. They encourage students to start early seeking funds for college.

Mooney said rising high school seniors should not wait until they have been accepted to a college before they start the process of financing their education, or to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

"The number one thing I would tell them, is to start the process early," reiterated Pat Barton, director of financial aid at Clayton State University. "After Jan. 1, of their senior year, they need to start focusing on financial aid."

While additional need-based aid is available, based on the FAFSA results, Barton recommends that all students apply through FAFSA, regardless of their perceived financial need. "One of the biggest funding sources is the federal government," she said.

The financial aid director highlights funding programs, such as the Federal Pell Grant, and work study programs. She said federal student loans also are available to students.

"Fill out the FAFSA, even if you don't think you qualify for anything," Barton said. "You may qualify for something you did not anticipate, or you may find that you need student loans after all, and you'll need that FAFSA application filled out. It will help save a lot of time."

High school counselors often remind juniors and seniors about the importance of nailing down how they will fund their post-secondary education early, according to Rick Marinaccio, the lead school counselor at Ola High School, in McDonough.

"We encourage students to complete the FAFSA every year," said Marinaccio. "Additionally, we announce to our students any scholarships that we become aware of during the school year.

"We also provide students and parents with a financial aid seminar each year [in January]," he continued. "And we encourage students to search for scholarships and grants on a variety of web sites and financial aid search web sites."

Scholarships, too, must be pursued early on. Barton said, while Georgia high schoolers can qualify for the state's HOPE Scholarship by maintaining high marks in school, other scholarships may require more time on the student's behalf.

The world wide web, she acknowledged, is a common means for searching for public, private, and institutional scholarships. "It really is worth the time it takes," said Barton. "But adhere to deadlines, if they're going to apply for private scholarships or institutional scholarships. Those deadlines are usually very early. "

Mooney warned that students should not pay any third-party entity for a scholarship search process. He said they should beware of scams that ask them to do otherwise.

The University of Georgia's financial aid director said students should consider private loans as a last resort for college financing. He said students should "borrow conservatively," if they have to borrow at all.

Mooney said one way students can avoid borrowing money to supplement the cost of living associated with attending college, is to find work. He said many colleges and universities offer employment opportunities, in addition to the federally funded work study programs.

"Check with financial aid and career services to see if they have federal work study funds and student assistance positions available," said Mooney. "It's going to give you flexibility for study times and exams, and will give real-life experience for your resume.

"Students need to understand that filling out the FAFSA is only the beginning of the process," he explained. "And be sure to stay in touch with the institution's financial aid office, to make sure they meet their financial aid deadlines."

To learn more about FAFSA, visit www.FAFSA.gov.