Forget worries about moving away from home and the Freshman 15. For many families, the really scary thing about college is the price tag.“A lot of kids are nervous,” said Twiana Collier, coordinator of student financial aid for the Aldine Independent School District. “The cost of tuition is skyrocketing.”
She and other experts say financial assistance is available, in the form of grants, scholarships and subsidized student loans. That's true even for middle-class families, who often don't apply because they assume they won't qualify.
But you have to start early.
The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, available online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Do it now, even if the student hasn't received an acceptance notice.
“Submitting it doesn't guarantee you will get aid, but not submitting it guarantees you won't,” said Kristen Campbell, director of college prep programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.
Nationally, tuition and fees cost an average of $7,020 this year, not including room and board. It will be higher next fall.
Texas' public universities haven't set tuition rates for 2010-11, but most say they will keep increases below 4 percent, as suggested by the Legislature. Some other states will raise it far more, including Florida, where a 15 percent jump has been proposed, and California, where tuition will increase more than 30 percent.
Tuition became a political issue in Texas after the Legislature gave schools the power to set their own rates in 2003.
The recession, and especially, higher unemployment, have heightened the concern.
A recent survey of college freshmen conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles found that two-thirds were worried about their ability to pay for their education. And 45 percent said the financial aid offer was “very important” in deciding which college they will attend.
Policy makers are listening. President Barack Obama's proposed budget includes more money for Pell Grants, the main financial aid program for low-income students, as well as for research, much of which is awarded to universities.
He also proposed a $10,000 higher-education tax credit and a plan to limit how much students have to repay in student loans.
During boom times, universities increased financial aid to attract the best students, but it's not clear how much aid will be available next fall.
Endowments are down, as are donations, both of which could affect how much schools can offer.
Houston Baptist University began notifying prospective students of financial aid awards this month, earlier than usual.
“We know students are more price sensitive,” said James Steen, vice president for enrollment management.
Applications for next year are up about 15 percent, he said, but he expects a smaller percentage of those who are accepted to actually enroll as families struggle with the cost of a private school. Tuition at HBU will be $21,970 next year.
The school also will increase financial aid. Some schools have dropped merit-based financial aid to focus on the neediest students, but Steen said that HBU considers both.
“Obviously, the higher the test score, the higher their GPA and class rank, the more we give them in the form of a scholarship or a grant,” he said.
Most schools saw big jumps this year in the number of students asking for financial aid.
The University of Houston-Downtown offered more than $100 million in financial aid for 2009-10, although not everyone who received an offer ultimately enrolled, said Rob Sheridan, executive director for special projects and financial aid.
“I would suspect those numbers will only increase,” he said.
But families who wait too long might be out of luck.
Each university sets a priority date for requesting aid. Applications received after that move to the end of the line.
“Once that priority deadline is hit, it will be gone,” Sheridan said.
People shouldn't be scared off by worries that they won't qualify or that the online application is too complicated, he said.
Help is available
Debora Cervantes is proof that persistence pays off.
Cervantes, 23, will graduate from UH-Downtown in May with a degree in accounting.
Her family couldn't afford to help, so she helped herself.
She was born in Austin but grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, and persuaded her family to return to the United States so she could attend college.
“I was new to the country and the system of education,” she said. “I went to the financial aid office and asked a lot of questions.”
She applied for grants and cobbled together scholarships to cover other costs.
Cervantes will graduate without any debt. “Just keep a clear goal of what you're trying to accomplish,” she said. “You want to be in school and keep up your grades.”
Steve Wagasky, College Funding Consultant
College Planning Professionals