Six Rules for Paying for College

It's no secret that these days, college costs are over the top. But with a little planning, you'd be surprised at what you can accomplish. UNCF president Michael Lomax points the way.

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President Obama has declared that the U.S. should recapture its position as the number one nation producing college graduates by the year 2020. If we are to be globally competitive, he argues, we must have a highly skilled, 21st-century workforce -- and that means more Americans with college degrees. Across the country, school systems are challenged to produce "college ready" graduates -- students who are academically prepared for the rigorous, freshman-year course work they will encounter.

But a strong academic foundation isn't the only enabler our kids and their families have to consider. Financial preparation is also crucial; too few students of color and their families develop plans to pay for college. Whether they are low-income with no family experience attending college, or middle-income with a history of family members who have graduated from college, financial planning is too often low on the checklist of things to do.

The truth is that in college, it takes academics to compete and money to complete. In fact, for many students, while their biggest initial challenge is adjusting to the rigors of college courses, it is failing to find a way to pay tuition that is their undoing. Financial difficulty is the number one reason that students drop out after a year or even less.

So as the new school year begins, with high school students and their parents seriously starting to think about college, they need to learn about and plan for how they will pay for college.

Of course, making a financial plan for college won't be without its challenges. There are few readily accessible places to get good information about financing. Most public schools have small college-counseling staffs; counselors are generally overworked, and few are knowledgeable about navigating financial aid regulations to meet college costs. Students and their parents will have to do a lot of work on their own. Keep these six rules in mind as you make your plans.

First, it is never too early -- or too late -- to start preparing for college. Unfortunately, too many students and their families wait until the acceptance letter comes in the mail before they consider how they will pay for it. They avoid the subject as if denial will make it go away. Instead, it's imperative to start planning financially at the same time you begin planning academically for college. The more, and the earlier, you learn about college costs and how to pay them, the better off you will be.

All of this is doable -- if you plan ahead. Start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at FAFSA.gov. Once the form is completed, you will be notified how much you may be entitled to in federal scholarship grants, how much you may be able to borrow through federally subsidized loans and how much your family will be expected to contribute toward your education. The lower your family's income, the more aid you will be entitled to and the less your family will need to contribute.

Third, most scholarships are awarded on the basis of merit and need. Start by going to UNCF.org and clicking on the "For Students" tab to see which scholarships you might qualify for. One UNCF scholarship, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program (GMS), pays all college expenses not covered by Pell Grants, other scholarships or a student's family contribution for 1,000 new freshmen each year.

GMS and other programs of this type are competitive, and there are usually many more applicants than there are scholarships to award. So the best guarantee of getting a scholarship is for college-bound students to work very hard, make very good grades and develop records of academic distinction that will make them more competitive.

Colleges look for a wide variety of students, so highlight the things that make you different. Take part in activities in areas of your interests, doing things that you can do well and through which you can make a contribution. If you're musically inclined, think of joining the school orchestra, band or choir. If your interest is in theater, audition for the school play.

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