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There’s Plenty of Aid to Fund College Education

Parents are beginning to sound like stock market tipsters when they advise each other about financing their children’s college educations.

“Fencing,” whispered one old-timer to a mother-to-be. “Get your child involved in fencing as soon as possible.” There are more scholarships for children skilled with a foil than there are children to apply for them, this parent maintained.

With the cost of a college education soaring into the stratosphere, it isn’t surprising that paying for school is becoming such a hot topic--replete with rumor, myth, good and bad advice. (The fencing tip, according to one student aid expert, is bad advice. There’s really not that much scholarship money dedicated to the sport, and what’s available is highly sought after.)

And now, as students are heading back to school--sometimes to face their first tuition bills--many parents and students may find themselves in the unenviable position of not having enough money.

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If this describes you, don’t panic. The biggest college-cost myth is that your child might not get an education because you can’t afford the tab.

In reality, plenty of help is available--even for the reasonably well-heeled--between student loans, grants and scholarships. And it’s not too late. Although it helps to apply for all sorts of student aid long before classes start, many programs are year-round.

“I have seen students and parents come in with all sorts of anxieties about whether they can afford college,” said Cliff Sjogren, dean of admissions and financial aid at USC. “The (student aid) system is complex. It is bureaucratic. It is difficult. But it almost always works out.”

Here are the ABCs of financial aid. Stay tuned for upcoming columns that go into more depth about the type of student loans and grants available and where you can obtain help and information.

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To apply for financial aid, students must fill out a form that gives details about their income and assets and the income and assets of their parents. One of two national processing centers will then determine the student’s eligibility for public loans and grants.

Usually, students can get the financial aid forms through their college financial aid office. However, those who want to start early--which is highly advisable--often can obtain the forms through high school guidance counselors.

Aid applications take about a month to process and can be sent directly to the colleges and universities the student is interested in attending. Financial aid counselors at those institutions can then discuss which sort of federal, state and university aid is available.

Be aware that there is almost always a gap between the amount of aid available and what the student needs. Students and their parents are expected to fill it.

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If you need time to pay your share of the bill, most colleges will work out payment plans. And if you find that you still don’t have enough money, the student can ask for more. Financial aid counselors are allowed some discretion to grant additional funds if there are extenuating circumstances. Colleges will almost always find a way to help those who truly have financial need, said Margaret Mottier, director of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Instant Research Service.

This public aid is just the first tier of what’s available. The student can also look for private donor loans, scholarships and grants.

However, for those with financial need, federal grants and loans are generally the most extensive and widely available. The amounts, interest rates and limitations can vary a bit each year.

Pell Grants provide up to $2,400 annually for needy undergraduate college students. Any student who is truly needy can get this money to finance their educational expenses, which includes tuition, housing and books. The application deadline for the 1991-92 school year is May 1, 1992.

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Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants go a step further, providing up to $4,000 annually. However, SEOG awards are generally reserved for those who apply early and have unusually great need for the money.

Students can also win work-study awards that provide them with minimum-wage work on and off campus. They usually must work 10 to 15 hours a week, but the pay cannot exceed the award.

Most states also have similar programs, some of which are based on need and others on merit.

And, if that’s not enough, students can also borrow college funds through various programs that provide low-interest loans.

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To obtain most federal and state financial aid, students must meet several standards, including some citizenship and residency requirements. For more information about federal aid, dial (800) 4-FED-AID. If you are interested in state-run programs, contact your state Department of Education.


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