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College Prep: Parents don’t have to mortgage future to pay tuition

Brian Underwood

It’s a dilemma that has plagued an incalculable number of parents since the United States’ first institution of higher learning was opened in 1636 and later named after a young minister known as John Harvard of Charlestown.

Then, as now, mothers and fathers have gnashed their teeth, worn the carpet thin from pacing, and, generally, found themselves drinking lots of warm milk at night over how to fund a college education for their children.

As a general statement, parents wish for their children a better tomorrow from what they had yesterday. Part and parcel to this is the desire so many parents have to provide the best possible education, so as to open as many doors for their children as possible.

The growing problem, however, has become that these doors, even the small ones, have gotten harder – and more expensive – to open.

According to Forbes.com (Aug. 10, 2010), the list price level of tuition and fees has risen sixfold since 1981, while the consumer price index has only increased two-and-a-half times.

This is good news for milk manufacturers but not exactly welcome news for the parents of prospective college students.

But before you grind your teeth down too far, mom and dad, take heart, there are many ways and sources to fund a college education. And they don’t necessarily require you to mortgage your future – or for your child to mortgage his or her future.

First, let’s put the scope of financial aid into context. According to a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2009, 66 percent of all undergraduates received some type of financial aid during the 2007-08 academic year, with the total average coming to $9,100 per student.

Fifty-two percent received grants (e.g. money that does not have to be paid back) averaging $4,900, and 38 percent took out an average of $7,100 in student loans. Another seven percent received aid through work study jobs averaging $2,400 in wages that are paid at a predetermined hourly rate by the institution.

What does all this mean? It means that a majority of students going to college today are receiving some form of financial aid.

For most, financial assistance comes from either the federal government or from the institution based on established financial need, as determined through the filing of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov.) More on this at the beginning of the next year.

The results of the application produce what is referred to as a family’s “Estimated Family Contribution,” which colleges and universities use prominently to produce financial aid packages that outline the eligibility of an applicant to receive grants, scholarships – for merit, loans and work-study.

But there also are other sources of funding that get overlooked – or are undervalued.

There is no question that the process of applying to college is quite involved and very time consuming. As such, it leaves many not wanting to write one more essay or take on any additional steps to garner private scholarship money that is available.

For those who muster the additional energy, there are some outstanding free Internet services that can provide some quality leads on private scholarships. Some of the better sources for this are Fastweb.com, Petersons.com, and the CollegeBoard.org. These sources keep your information confidential, unless you release it, and they will update you via email about scholarships for which you’re eligible.

Additionally, there are often local clubs and organizations, such as the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs, that offer students the opportunity to apply for and/or compete for scholarships or financial prizes that can help defray the cost of college.

To obtain a scholarship from a local organization a student must typically write an essay and/or submit to an interview.

Other opportunities to earn financial support include taking part in speech competitions and dedicated writing competitions. Contests such as these frequently feature subsequent rounds that offer elevated prize amounts.

Because the overall cost of college can be quite daunting, many underrate the opportunity to take part in available local programs to earn smaller sums of money. But when one stops to consider how setting aside part of a Saturday or Sunday to write an essay might mean keeping $500 in discretionary money in their pocket instead of buying textbooks, the argument becomes more relevant.

Go out for late night pizza with friends, or cuddle up with your physics book over top Ramen?

It doesn’t take a Harvard grad to make it work. Just some hard work and persistence.

• Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School. He can be reached at underwood@slhs.com.