You Can Afford College: Starting an Effective Search for Financial Aid: Part I

As headlines scream about the increasing cost of higher education, whispers of good news about paying those costs are coming together and sending a loud message Ñ you can afford it.

With the right information and timing, applying for and receiving financial aid has never been easier. It's the misconceptions about financial aid that prompt many to give up pursuing post-secondary education.

"Education after high school is affordable," said Ray Holbrook, Tennessee Technological University's director of financial aid. "Think in terms of the full-range of opportunities for education after high school, including technical schools, community colleges, private universities, two-year and four-year public institutions and for-profit colleges."

Twenty-five percent of people interested in pursuing a degree beyond high school said they knew "almost nothing" about where and how to receive financial aid, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

The answers to both "where" and "how" begin with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the basis for all federal and state financial assistance. Filling out a FAFSA means one-stop shopping for grants, work-study money and loans.

"I encourage every senior high school student to fill out the application regardless of their immediate plans or financial situation," said Holbrook. "Finding out money is available encourages people to say, 'How can my life be different?'"

The FAFSA is not just for high school seniors planning to go to school full-time, it's also for non-traditional and part-time students. The form may be filled using the Internet, or forms are available from high school guidance counselors or post-secondary institutions.

"A student may list up to six institutions on the form," explained Holbrook. "Typically, each school will send a letter describing the type of aid available to the student. Then a student is able to compare the different types of aid offered."

"All students, regardless of their age, marital status and other factors, are eligible to borrow some money if they are attending school as least half-time," he added.

Educational loans differ from other loans; most have a guaranteed interest rate below nine percent and allow delaying payments until after you've completed school.

Many schools like Tennessee Tech offer assistance in filling out the FAFSA, but the form is not complicated if you gather income information before starting. It's best to fill out tax forms in January or early February, even if they aren't filed early, because that information is essential.

No matter which school you plan to attend, Tennessee Tech's Nine-Step Application Checklist can help you manage the paperwork and timing in the application process. The nine steps are full of answers and sound hints and suggest attending a summer pre-registration program wich most schools offer.

Students vying for merit scholarships shouldn't disregard the importance of completing a FAFSA. Many institutions require students to have completed a FAFSA before awarding academic scholarships.

Holbrook cringes to think lack of information about available money holds someone back from pursuing a post-secondary education.

"Students who have the initiative but don't have the cash to pay for school should not let their lack of money stand in theway," said Holbrook. "Financial aid opportunities are available to people who want higher education."

Call 800-433-3243 or check out www.fafsa.ed.gov on the Internet for more information about FAFSA or call Tennessee Tech's financial aid office at (931) 372-3073.
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