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.
Look for opportunities to give back to the school or the community, like tutoring younger students in the subjects you know best, or taking a regular shift helping out at a community center. Make sure you mention these kinds of activities on your application. And students will need to research what scholarships to apply for and when, so again, planning is essential.
Fourth, in addition to merit-based scholarships, there are federal need-based dollars to which low-income students are entitled, regardless of academic performance — as long as the student is enrolled in college. These are called Pell Grants, and while they help, they rarely cover all of the costs of going to college. Students and their families will still have to contribute, and those family contributions are too often not planned. But the lower your family income, the higher your Pell Grant will be and the less your family will need to contribute. Again, plan ahead. You can find out more about Pell Grants and other federal grant programs at www.studentaid.ed.gov.
Find out if your career aspirations, such as working as a teacher, make you eligible to have part of your loan canceled. Borrow only what you need to pay for education. Too many students borrow to pay for cars or clothes or don't think about how they will repay their loans, and wind up borrowing more than they can reasonably pay back. You don't want to be over-leveraged before you've even graduated. There are also low-interest federal loans for parents, PLUS loans, which help parents meet the cost of financing their children's college education.
Sixth, save as much as you can, because you will need it. Ideally, parents should start saving for college when their child is very young. Depending on in which state you live, you may be able to take advantage of a 529 college savings plan. But if you cannot save much and start saving late — even when your student is already in high school — don't let that discourage you. Saving, even a little, makes planning for college more real for students and their families, gets everyone invested in the process and reinforces the reality that going to college means sacrificing now for a benefit in the future.
These six rules may make an already difficult process seem even more daunting, but once students and their families start to work on their financial planning, it will become an integral part of their college preparation. Like so many important decisions in life, making the right decisions about college is tough, but planning will serve students and their families well. And planning for how you will pay for college is the first step in ensuring that the bills will get paid so that you or your child won't just attend college but will also graduate.
This academic year, more than 3 million African Americans will pursue a postsecondary degree, but only 40 percent will earn a college degree in six years. If we are to meet the ambitious goal that President Obama has set for our nation to re-establish itself as the number one producer of college graduates, we will need to improve the college-completion rate in our community. To do that, we will need more African Americans to be academically — and financially — prepared for college.
Michael Lomax is president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.