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    The Bucks Start Here

    Financial aid pros tell you how to get started on your search.

    Interview by Martin Cockroft

    Our Panel of Pros

    Greg Bruner, Assistant Financial Aid Director
    Olivet Nazarene University--Kankakee, Illinois
    Jim Long, Director of Financial Aid
    Calvary Bible College--Kansas City, Missouri
    Mari Notley, Director of Financial Aid
    Dallas Baptist University--Dallas, Texas

    Got questions about paying for college? We asked these experts to help us understand the confusing world of financial aid, and here's what they had to say.

    Let's say I'm in high school and I want to go to a Christian college. When do my parents and I need to start thinking about financial aid?
    Financial Aid and Scholarships Jim: If you're a freshman in high school, get started. Go in and talk with your high school guidance counselor. Later, be sure to let schools know you're interested. Junior year, or even earlier, call up the schools you're considering and say, "I'm thinking about going to your school. Tell me about the types of aid you have and when I need to apply."

    Mari: Start planning immediately. Look at the present costs of a college education, and find an estimate on what the cost might be in a few years. Then plan out your whole education. Most students and families only look at the one-year costs, instead of a four- or five-year figure. Look for ways to manage your money.
    As early as freshman year in high school, students should get involved in activities that will help them earn scholarships. Yes, academics are very important. But develop leadership or athletic skills and be proactive about community service.
    Greg: Junior year is when you really start picking up steam. A lot of students looking at Olivet even apply then. It's not a complete application--obviously we don't have transcripts at that time--but it gets them into the system and on our mailing list. And the quicker you get into the system, the better shot you have at the school's limited funds.
    As early as the summer before your senior year, we like to have you come to campus. Sit down with us, and we'll plug in some numbers, just to see what kind of financial aid you might expect.
    What happens in an initial meeting with a financial aid officer?
    Greg: I'll explain the aid process to the student and parents and give them some general dates: "This is when you're going to get your federal packet in the mail. You can't fill it out until January 1, but here's when we'd like to see it back. This is our priority deadline, so all financial aid forms need to be in by then to get everything you're eligible for." Then, I basically just answer questions about the process. That's a big part of the meeting.
    You mentioned a "priority deadline." Do all schools have one? What exactly has to be in by that date?
    Greg: Almost every school has some sort of priority deadline, because funds run out. Each school gets a certain amount of money to divide up. And we just can't make those dollars last.
    Mari: You want to get the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in by the priority deadline. But most private schools also have an institutional application. And some require you to submit that by the deadline, too.
    Tell me more about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
    Greg: The FAFSA is the application for all federal money. If you're interested in state grants, federal grants or student loans, you have to fill out that form. Parents and students submit income and tax figures, and those numbers get plugged into a certain formula by the government. Results are spit out to the schools you're interested in.
    Jim: Applications generally come out in November prior to the next school year. For the 2000-01 school year, you need your 1999 tax information to fill out the form. I en courage students and parents to get their taxes done as soon as possible. Don't try to do it the minute before college starts. About a month after you do send in the FAFSA, the schools who were listed on the application should send you an award letter, explaining how much you qualify for in grants and how much you may borrow in student loans. You'll also find out your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
    And the EFC is ...
    Jim: How much the government says parents can give for their child's education. Now, whether the parents can really pay that much is another question. That's the number the government has come up with. If the student taps into some non-federal sources of aid--outside scholarships, for instance--parents may not pay the whole EFC.
    There are several types of student aid. What are they, and how do they work?
    Mari: The best types of aid are scholarships and grants. They're both free money. While scholarships are typically a reward for achievement, grants are normally based on need.
    Jim: A loan is money you borrow from someone else. They're giving you this money at this point in time to use for your schooling, but you're going to be paying it all back, usually with interest. It's not free money.
    Mari: Then there's the work-study program. That's when federal funds are given to the university, and the university matches a portion of those funds to employ students, either on-campus or in community service positions, like tutoring.
    What are the common kinds of state or federal aid a student might receive?
    Financial Aid for CollegeGreg: As far as federal grants go, the most common is the Pell Grant. It's based on need. Most state and federal grants have some sort of need-based tag to them.

    Then there are three types of federal loans: Stafford, Perkins and PLUS. The Stafford is either subsidized or unsubsidized. If you receive the subsidized loan, the government pays the interest for you while you're in school. If it's unsubsidized, Uncle Sam does not pay that interest.
    Now the Perkins loan is just like the subsidized Stafford, except it's completely need-based. Both the Stafford and the Perkins are student loans. The student takes out the loan, and the student pays it back.
    The PLUS is a parent loan, and it's the only one you don't have to fill out the FAFSA for. The PLUS is a way for parents to borrow big money for the student's tuition with a low monthly fee. There is interest, and repayment is based on a 10-year payoff. If parents take out a PLUS four consecutive years, it could be some serious money.
    Jim: Check with each school to see which types of grants and loans they offer. Not all schools are alike. At Calvary, we only deal with the Pell grant, Stafford loans and PLUS loans. We do not participate in the Perkins loan or work-study program.
    What are your thoughts on taking out loans? Is it a good idea?
    Mari: Of course loans should be one of your last resources. As it states in Proverbs 22:7, you need to be careful who you borrow from. But a lot of these federal loans are good loans. With the subsidized Stafford or the Perkins, for instance, the government pays the interest while you're in school. And the interest rate is the best you'll have in your life.
    Greg: You have to stop and think. Even if you take out the maximum amount of loans possible, you'll have a college education for about the same price per month as a cheap car payment. And after college, if you put an extra $50 or $100 toward every payment, you can pay off your loans three or four years faster.
    Jim: I tell our students not to take out a loan, if possible. As I said, Calvary does provide Stafford loans, so we're not completely against it. But most students who graduate from our school are looking to go into Christian ministry. And often, ministries check to see if you have a debt to pay. If you do, you might have to work off that debt first, and then see about ministry. Or you might not be able to accept a position because it doesn't pay enough to cover your loan expenses.
    So, when students come into my office and say, "I think I'm going to need to take out a loan," I ask them if they would be willing to wait a week, pray and see what happens. I've seen God provide in remarkable ways for students--they get a better job or a relative helps them out. The best advice, I think, is to pray about it, think it over, and plan accordingly.
    What factors might cause a change in financial aid from year to year?
    Greg: Anything that changes your tax situation: an income jump or loss, the death of a parent, some kind of inheritance, or a big business loss or gain.
    Mari: Also, the type of IRS form parents fill out, a move from state to state, and a change in federal or state allocations to the university.
    Greg: The real catch, though, is that financial aid is based on the previous year, not the year of enrollment. So let's say '98 was great, but '99 has been terrible, financially. You need to go to the school and ask for a special circumstance. Colleges have the ability to make what's called a "professional judgment." Let's say there's been a job loss or a death in the family. The school can reprocess your figures and come up with a whole new result.
    What happens if a family receives the sweetest financial aid package they're going to get, and they still can't scrape together the money?
    Jim: At Calvary and many other colleges, there's a monthly payment plan. You're not really getting any aid, but it is a form of assistance so you don't have to put $4,000 down on registration day. And at some other schools, if you pay by a certain date, you get a percentage off. So if you have the money early, or maybe even if you register early, you might receive a discount or a percentage off tuition.
    Mari: Check to see if there's a tuition lock. That's when a school commits to letting a student in at a specified charge per credit hour, and then stays with that rate through graduation. Other colleges will promise some amount of aid, and let it grow proportionally with the tuition rate, assuming your need doesn't change dramatically and you meet eligibility criteria.
    If you could leave students and parents with only one thought about the financial aid process, what would it be?
    Greg: Check the deadlines, requirements, cost factors and so forth at each school you're looking at. They aren't all the same.
    Mari: Don't just look at the academics of a college in making your decision. If a school's financial aid department won't take the time to explain everything to you, you need to rethink your choice. This is a big investment, and you need a department you can communicate with.
    Jim: Don't make your college decision solely on the basis of finances. If God has led you to a particular school, and it doesn't appear that you can afford that school, trust in the Lord for his provision. If he wants you there, he already has a plan for you!
    Financial Aid Myths

    Don't get pulled in by rumors that just aren't true. We asked our forum experts about five common myths. Then they sorted fact from fiction.

    Myth: Members of the "middle class" have a big disadvantage when it comes to paying for college.
    Truth: While students from middle-class families might miss out on some need-based funding like Pell grants, they're usually at an advantage when it comes to scholarships, based on the academic and athletic resources they had in high school. And financial aid awards depend on a lot more than income. Family size, assets and number of kids in college are just a few factors that go into the equation.

    Myth: Schools offer freshman financial incentives, then drop aid from year to year.
    Truth: Colleges often offer a little extra to help students get a foot in the door. But the amount of loans students can take out goes up every year. Plus returning students have a good chance at winning scholarships and awards based on their success on campus--academic, artistic, athletic or leadership-related.

    Myth: It's better not to work during the school year and summer, because you'll receive a better financial aid package.
    Truth: You have to weigh your losses against your gains. Maybe your summer income will keep you from qualifying for a $1,000 Pell Grant. But your job might earn you $2,000-$5,000 instead. So is skipping out on the job a good idea? No, it's bad stewardship.

    Myth: If a student declares herself independent (so her parents can't claim her on their taxes), she'll get a fantastic financial aid package.
    Truth: Unless you're over 23 years old, a veteran, married, a parent, in graduate school, or an orphan or ward of the court, you cannot be considered "independent" by the government, even if you cut Mom and Dad out of the equation. As far as taxes and federal money are concerned, you're still a dependent.

    Myth: Billions of unclaimed scholarship dollars are just waiting to be won.
    Truth: Unclaimed scholarships go unclaimed for a reason--they're only offered to a red-headed, left-handed cricket player from Maine, for instance. But scams use the "billions of dollars" line to rope parents and students into paying big money to scholarship-finding services. The experts concur: Anyone claiming he'll lead you to the billion-dollar treasure chest is just trying to claim a few of your dollars for himself.