Content originally published by the Westminster Window on February 1st, 2016.
More than 400 area students and parents spent their Saturday morning searching for hidden treasure in the least likely of places: Westminster High School.
But instead of a pot of gold, the figurative treasure seekers — teens and their parents, mostly — were searching for information to help them pay for post-secondary education without finding a pile of debt waiting at the end of the graduation line.
“There’s a lot of scholarships I don’t know about,” said Magdallenna Castillo, of Horizon High School, who joined her friend Lizette Sanchez and mother, Laura, for the sixth annual Tuition Fair and Scholarship Panel, hosted by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-District 7). “So there are a lot of ways I can get money to go to college.”
“She has good grades, so hopefully that’ll be a plus,” added Castillo’s mother, Laura, who noted the availability of scholarships for Latino students.
Noemi Aguirre, of Westminster High School, said she is hoping to lock down an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) scholarship to help her study medicine at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“I want to know how to pay for college and the types of programs available,” she said, echoing the sentiments of the hundreds of others in attendance.
‘Taking the mystery’ out of higher ed funding
As studies continue to show student debt on the rise — Colorado is 37 in the nation, with students seeing an average of $25,000 debt from post-secondary education costs, according to nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success — the question of how to curb the cost of a college education is a common one, education officials and legislators say.
Because his office receives many calls about scholarship and financing information, Perlmutter decided to bring together local colleges and schools, scholarship organizations, and state and federal funding agencies to provide a one-stop information session to parents and students.
“It’s been a huge success,” Perlmutter said in a phone interview days just days before the event.
Addressing a crowded house Saturday during opening comments, Perlmutter reiterated the need to help keep college affordable for working families.
“It’s very expensive,” he said. This event “helps take the mystery out of a lot of that.”
College ‘no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity’
Resources abound for students seeking help paying for college, including College in Colorado (CIC), a Department of Higher Education program that assists students in exploring affordable career and college opportunities.
“Going to college is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” CIC executive director Dawn Taylor Owens said. “Yet, the feedback we get from parents and students is that they’re terrified to borrow money.”
Owens agreed that borrowing should be the last step students and parents take, but added it is imperative to consider the reasons — and benefits — of doing so. The standard $20,000 to $25,000 debt by the average college student is actually a pretty sound investment, Owens said.
“We tell parents that, over a lifetime, if you have a college degree, you can earn about $1 million more than without,” she said. “So, $20,000 is really a good investment. That said, we want to help them do everything they can to prevent borrowing money, and one of the biggest things is applying for scholarships.”
This where assistance comes in handy, Owens said. In Colorado alone, “tens of thousands of dollars of scholarship money goes unused … because people don’t apply for them.” The reason? Many people don’t realize just how much money is out there or how arbitrary the qualifications can be.
Scholarships “are not all merit- or needs-based,” she said, noting scholarships exist for red-headed or left-handed students, middle children, or even those who make the best PB&J sandwich. “It’s crazy what’s out there now.”
Looking at the big picture
School districts are also beginning to see the value in providing tuition and scholarship assistance to students. Adams District 50 education specialist Whitney Allen said the district’s new Future Center aims to do just that.
“It’s really about educating parents and students about the financial aid process,” she said. “It’s just so huge.”
The process is all the more intimidating for students who might be the first in the family to seek higher education, or for students whose parents are not English speakers or may have immigrated to the U.S., Allen said.
“It’s a complicated process if you’re from this country and your parents went to college,” she said. “So if you haven’t, it’s kind of a double-whammy.”
But like the tuition fair, the district was been and will continue to hold financial aid sessions in Spanish and English as a way to assist families while also improving on their own numbers of career-ready and college-bound students. The only concern is lack of resources — Allen said district career counselors have caseloads of about 550 kids each.
“The district is really trying to augment what (career counselors) are doing,” she said, “by being the college and career readiness voice to the kids and parents in the community.”
Tips for borrowing
Dawn Taylor Owens, executive director of College in Colorado, offered financial aid tips for students looking for help paying for their college tuition:
• First, apply online for financial aid at www.FAFSA.gov.
• Compare financial aid offers — a student will have a lot of decisions to make once he or she receives financial aid award letters. Assess financial aid packages by comparing offers and reading the fine print.
• Borrow only what you need. To determine how much money you may need to borrow, look at a college’s cost, your cost of living, your family’s contribution and your financial aid award. Remember, you don’t have to accept the entire amount of a loan you’re offered.
• If you have to borrow, private loans shop around. Private loans require credit checks. If you do not have a credit history, you will need a cosigner with a good credit history and credit score. Typically, the better the cosigner’s credit history and score, the better the interest rate and other terms will be.
• Ask questions (For example, what is the interest rate?) and follow instructions. If you feel you need to borrow more to cover your costs, ask your financial aid officer for advice. If you decide to take a private (or alternative) loan, compare interest rates, fees and repayment options carefully. Your college may recommend certain lenders, but you don’t have to use them.
• Understand a loan’s terms, conditions and repayment requirements: How much will this loan cost in total? What will my monthly payments be? Is the interest rate fixed or variable? Can I get a lower interest rate? What fees do I have to pay?
• Consider making interest payments while in college. You can start making payments on any need-based loans while you’re in college. You don’t have to pay a lot, and this will allow you to reduce the total amount you’ll have to repay.
Student loans are a common part of financial aid packages. For online tools that can help you compare loans and decide how much to borrow, visit College in Colorado at www.collegeincolorado.org.