A lot of high school seniors are getting fat college acceptance envelopes in the mail, and parents are wondering if their wallets are fat enough to cover what's inside.
Paying for college can be daunting, but parents and students have four main avenues of help, outside of money they've saved: grants, loans, scholarships and jobs.
Emily Lien combined all of those when she started Creighton University. It costs about $30,000 a year to attend the Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb., but it was Lien's top choice.
"I wasn't sure I was going to be able to afford Creighton, but it was my dream school," Lien said. "The admissions office worked with my family."
Lien said that her mother, a single mom with two children in school, qualified for grants. Lien has taken out loans, and she works in the admissions department on campus about 15 hours a week for work-study.
Work study is regulated by the federal government, and a student must be eligible, unlike campus employment, which many schools also offer to any student with the skills to do the job.
Lien earned a number of private scholarships from local companies, and she said she spent hours filling out scholarship forms for big companies.
"You probably shouldn't waste your time applying for scholarships the whole world is applying for," Lien said. "The (money) I got really applied to me and my life."
To identify those opportunities, start early. Joan Jurek, the director of college planning for Omaha's Education Quest, said she encourages high school juniors to start hunting down money.
"Scholarships are limited for juniors, but you'll start to know what's out there and can get a jump on the ones you are eligible for," Jurek said.
Then, when senior year begins, start filling out the forms. Scholarships are free money that doesn't have to be paid back. They come from all kinds of private and public sources.
Different foundations are looking for different things, Jurek said, but a high school guidance counselor is a good place to get help matching a student's talents and interests with money.
Colleges and universities tend to use their scholarships to reward talent, Jurek said, whether it be athletic, academic or leadership. But there are endless scholarship opportunities for left-handers, horse enthusiasts, people who shop at certain stores -- nearly every interest under the rainbow. A good place to start the search is FastWeb.com or FastAid.com. For college-based scholarships, Jurek said, institutions want the student to first be accepted into the school and they want to assess their FAFSA, or free application for federal student aid. The FAFSA shows the federal government and colleges how much money the student and parents make and how much help for which they qualify. They can be filed as early as January every year the student is in school. They're based on the previous year's tax return. If tax information changes, award eligibility may change from year to year.
The FAFSA determines what kinds of loans, scholarships, work study and grants a student can get and how much of each.
"Without (the FAFSA), you basically said, 'Let me get my checkbook out,'" said Bob Walker, the director of student financial aid at Creighton University.
Walker said that at this time of year, he sometimes gets 700 FAFSA forms in a single day. Creighton has about 4,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate and post-graduate students.
Schools administer the federal funds, Walker said. Students who have all of their information in early get considered first for federal money. Since a lot of each year's money is finite, the early students have the best options for getting money. That rule doesn't apply to talent scholarships.
"Once we find out what a student is eligible for and what funds we have available, we put together a package. An award letter goes to the home," Walker said. "Mom and Dad are hopefully sitting down when they first find out how well-off they are."
Where To Borrow From
If Mom and Dad don't feel as well off as the FAFSA shows them, Walker said he recommends getting a loan against home equity or borrowing against cash value in a life insurance policy before turning to private lenders.
"I'd rather pay back myself than somebody else," Walker said.
Jurek said that, unlike Stafford loans and other government-backed student loans, private college loans aren't regulated, so parents should ask a lot of questions.
"What's the interest rate? How often does it reset? Does it accrue interest while in school, require co-signers? Are there fees?" Jurek said.
Also, the U.S. credit crunch has put a lot of student loan makers out of business. Walker said federal rules changes have made student loans less profitable, so many smaller lenders closed up shop. Most students loans going forward will come from large, national banks that can absorb the costs, Williams said. Students who had a loan last year may want to check with their lender to make sure they'll be offering loans next year.
Whether it is loans or scholarships, only do business with reputable companies. The Federal Trade Commission offers some telltale signs that a scholarship offer could be a scheme: