If your student is planning for college, it's time to learn about financial aid. Don't assume your family's income and assets are too high to qualify. Eligibility for financial aid varies depending on the cost of the school your child attends.
"Everyone planning to attend college should apply for financial aid," said Marla Skelley, manager of the NELA Center for Student Success, a free college access center in Seattle. "No matter how much a parent makes, all students are eligible for some type of student loans. Plus, financial situations change, so it's best to be prepared."
Your first step should be to educate yourself about financial aid options, according to Maggie Mittuch, director of student financial services at the University of Puget Sound. Most high schools hold college or financial aid nights in the fall to provide families with information. Attend one to learn about the federal application process, and then check with the schools that your student is considering to find out about deadlines.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form that starts it all. Submit it as soon as possible after Jan. 1 of the year your student intends to enter college. The federal government uses the FAFSA to determine what dollar amount your family is expected to contribute toward higher education costs. To apply online, go to the FAFSA section of the Department of Education's Web site at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
Financial aid includes grants, scholarships, work-study and student loans. Because grants and scholarships don't have to be repaid, experts advise students to exhaust all possibilities before taking out student loans.
Grants are based on merit or need. Submitting the FAFSA allows your child to be considered for federal grants. Check with the school to find out if there are separate applications for state or school-based grants.
Students receive scholarships based on academic achievement, community service, financial need, leadership/school activities, a talent or skill, or a parent's affiliation with an employer, club or organization. Take advantage of free scholarship search Web sites such as www.fastweb.com, www.scholarships.com or www.collegeboard.com.
Work-study programs allow students to earn money to pay education expenses. The student is eligible to look for a job either on or off campus, depending on the school. To apply, check the work-study box on the FAFSA.
Student loans offer low interest rates, options for postponing repayment during times of financial hardship and a choice of repayment options. Parents can also take out federal loans to pay for their dependent student's education.
Other options for paying for your child's education include private student loans through your bank or credit union, personal lines of credit and home equity loans. You may want to consult a financial advisor before making important decisions about your finances.
Don't rule out the power of saving, even for just a few years. "If your child still has a few years of high school left, start saving what you can," Skelley says. "Even if it's not much, some savings can reduce the amount of debt you or your student take on to pay for college."
College savings plans or prepaid tuition programs such as Washington's Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) are a good option for some parents. As Sherri Ballantyne, financial aid director at Bellevue Community College, points out, if tuition goes up 6 percent every year, prepaying saves that 6 percent.
Maximize the last years of high school. Your student should concentrate on getting good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, volunteer and do community service -- all of which can make him or her more attractive to a scholarship committee.
Examine different methods for reducing the overall cost of higher education. Washington State's Running Start program offers high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to attend community or technical colleges for a minimal charge to earn both high school and college credit.
Whatever choices your family makes to pay for college, remember that it's an investment in the future. People who graduate from college increase their earning potential and job opportunities. Many of the fastest-growing occupations require at least a bachelor's degree, and there are many benefits to higher education that can't be measured in dollars.
Don't rule out college because of costs. Few families can meet the total price of higher education alone. According to The College Board, nearly 60 percent of undergraduate students use some form of financial aid. Your student can, too.
Online resources: Scholarship search
Online resources: Financial aid information
Tina Christiansen writes for Northwest Education Loan Association (NELA), a not-for-profit company. Much of the information above is adapted from Paying for College 2004-2005, a free booklet available from NELA. Call 206-461-5366 or 877-635-2669 to request a copy.