Ways to afford your child's college education

Parents of juniors and seniors in high school complain about how complicated the college admissions process has become. They recall applying to one or two schools, filling out a simple application and receiving notification of acceptance in the spring. Less attention was paid to getting accepted by Ivy League or schools with high rankings in U.S News and Reports. Affordability controlled decisions in the days before the rise of student loans permitting more individuals to attend college.

Back then, it was highly unlikely applicants would ever have considered leaving college, having accumulated massive debts that would take decades to repay. Now some graduates can look forward to student loan payments amounting to upwards of $1,000 a month. When and if unforeseen circumstances prevail, and one falls back on payments, interest compounds and debt mounts.

The National Center for Educational Statistics reports the average debt for most students is $10,000. At the current rates, without failing back on payments, this amount will take 10 years to repay. Those who owe more money may well be paying back loans far into middle age. As the economy becomes shakier, it is recommended families take a closer look at the less expensive schools. Granted, they are difficult to find as even state college tuition has skyrocketed.

Do not take scholarships for granted, either. Advertisements, especially those online and in mailings, hawk information about scholarships that may not exist and require a hefty fee before information is disseminated. Having lived through several recessions in which families come up against unforeseen hardships when making college choices, I have always encouraged a rainy day approach.

Unless there is absolutely no problem financing a child’s education, it is beneficial to explore the many wonderful state and community college programs. Some private colleges, and several of the Ivy Leagues, guarantee no student will leave owing money. Those institutions often look to recruit under-served populations to their ranks. Most state colleges and universities have outstanding honors programs for students who have achieved high grades and test scores through high school. These programs offer small seminar style classes, honors dormitories and recognition on one’s diploma.

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey has several programs, one in the arts and sciences division and another in the School of Environmental and Biological Science. The perks are many and include funding for research, social activities, special mentors and personalized advisement. To obtain entry into this program, students must be in the top 10 percent of their class and have a combined critical reading and math SAT score of 1350.

Certainly, such a program provides amazing opportunities, and it behooves students early in their high school careers to be aware of what advantages scholarship can bring. Likewise, Penn State has the renowned Schreyer Honors College, which aims to educate men and woman to step forward as leaders and influence the world.

Applying to Schreyer is a twofold process. First, the student must apply to Penn State and check off that they wish to be considered for honors, then comes a comprehensive application process in which they must fill out an application and provide essay and short answer responses to thoughtful questions. Outside of outstanding grades and test scores, the application requires supplementary letters of recommendation. Current Penn State students have an additional opportunity to apply for Schreyer through the Junior Gate Admission process.

Honors programs exist at every level of academia. Some community colleges provide special opportunities for students who maintain a specified grade point average and even qualify for Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. However, since most students will not qualify for the honors programs, how can they find suitable placements? The answer is this requires research, self-analysis and careful study of what is available.

Decisions made in haste often result in unhappy experiences with students failing classes and/or leaving school without a degree and loan payments to begin soon after. A good time to take stock and explore opportunities is during the junior year of high school. It is then many students can begin to acknowledge the reality the end of high school is in sight.

One true success story is of a boy who always hated school and wanted to get out as fast as possible. Both parents and his older sister had all attended four-year colleges. When attending a vocational program was recommended, they were hesitant until a visit opened their eyes to how outstanding these schools can be. Their son chose to major in welding sciences and spent two years attending the vocational program at his local high school.

After much cajoling, he applied and was accepted to the State University of New York campus at Delhi. This college and the outstanding services it provides impressed the parents and their son, who ultimately decided attending college was not so bad. He chose welding technology, honing the skills he had learned at the vocational high school. Into his second year of an associate’s degree, he has joined a fraternity and is active in student life. Upon completion of the welding program, he applied for a second associate’s degree in carpentry.

When he graduates, he will both have gained marketable skills and have experienced college life. Job prospects for the future are good for this young man. More than 900,000 men and woman in the United States are employed as welders or flame cutters. The carpentry degree will add to his repertoire as a skilled craftsperson. He also has begun designing a line of welded jewelry that commands a high market value. The experience of this young man can serve as an example to the benefits of attending a technological college. The vast majority of candidates will not qualify for honors programs or may not aspire to attend a fine technical college. How then do they make the right choice when selecting a school that is affordable?

The answer lies in careful reflection; aptitude tests and interest inventories can be valuable tools. I often tell students to think back to early dreams before they focused on finding a career to earn a living, and the clue would be there. Run with that idea and use it as a focal point for finding appropriate schools. Look for colleges that match one’s grade point and fit the economic profile of the family. Study departments, contact professors and make healthy choices that will not result in decades of servitude to lending organizations.