How to pay for college

by The Wenatchee World, Wash.
What do you want to be when you grow up -- a lawyer, a teacher, a doctor, a poet?

It's all possible if you go to our college, the glossy viewbooks and smiling tour guides sing ... until you see the price tag. The figures make parents, and students, feel like they've been donked in the head with a Frisbee.

Financial aid can help ease your headaches and grow something like a money tree, but it has many problems to take on.

The average cost to attend a public university in the U.S. for the coming school year is about $22,300 a year, according to Money magazine. That's nearly one-third of the typical family's annual income. Private colleges take an even bigger bite, costing on average about $43,500 a year, about 60 percent of a typical family's annual income.

And the cost of higher education only seems to be going in one direction -- up.

College Board reports that over the last 12 years, tuition and fees at in-state, four-year colleges have increased by about 5.6 percent each year.

The three branches of financial aid -- grants, work-study and loans -- can help tackle these costs.

Grants are the most desirable, because you don't have to pay them back. Loans, on the other hand, are borrowed money you have to pay back; you want to use them sparingly. Work-study provides on-campus jobs that will put money in your pocket.

Here are 12 more ways to help pay for college:

1. Gather materials

Before you fill out applications, Wenatchee High School counselor Mary Howie suggests writing an activities resume by the beginning of your senior year, or earlier. This resume should list all of your extracurricular activities, including participation in sports, clubs, music and theatricals. It should also include honors and awards, work experience and community service.

You will also need to get recommendations from teachers, employers, counselors or volunteer organizations you've worked for, and should have copies of your recent high school transcript in hand.

Once you've gathered all the above materials, you'll be ready to start filling out those scholarship applications.

2. Apply for scholarships

Howie suggests applying for local scholarships first. With a smaller application pool, these scholarships are easier to get. Then, start filling out national scholarship applications.

Marcy Horne, coordinator of the college mentor program at Wenatchee High School, recommends checking out the Community Foundation of North Central Washington (cfncw.org) for local scholarship opportunities. The Washington Apple Education Foundation (waef.org) is another great resource if you or your family has worked in the fruit industry. Many churches, volunteer organizations and credit unions also provide scholarships.

Talk to your high school counselors for more ideas, and keep in mind that many academic, athletic and talent-based scholarships are offered through colleges. You may automatically be considered for these scholarships when you apply to schools, or have to fill out separate applications.

But the scholarship hunt doesn't end once you're settled into a dorm room. Many academic departments offer scholarships for their students, ones they can apply for throughout their four years of college.

Follow scholarship application directions carefully Horne says. If you provide too much or too little information, you'll automatically be disqualified.

Keep an ongoing list of scholarship deadlines to help yourself organize and prioritize, and don't wait until the spring of your senior year to start looking at scholarships. The earlier you start applying, the better.

3. Fill out the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA)

FAFSA -- part of the U.S. Department of Education -- gives more than $150 billion worth of financial aid packages to college-bound students every year. Plus, the service is absolutely free.

Applications go live on Jan. 1 on the website fsa.ed.gov. Plan on filling one out sooner rather than later. If you wait, there will be less money available. The FAFSA deadline is June 30.

To apply, you'll need your family's financial information, along with a current W-2 form. If you won't receive your W-2 form by Jan. 1, you can fill out the FAFSA using the previous year's form.

After filling out the application, you'll receive a FAFSA package that contains a combination of grants, work-study and loans that you qualify for through the government or your prospective colleges. You can accept or decline any option.

You can predict how much financial aid you'll receive from FAFSA using the FAFSA4caster on the website.

4. Consider student loans

If you're a typical middle-class kid, there's a big possibility you'll have to take out student loans to go to college, Horne says. Students should proceed with caution, but "shouldn't be afraid," she says. "It's an investment in your future."

Student loans should be your last resort, and used minimally. It's not free money. Make sure you fully understand your financial situation; don't go to a school that's way out of your means.

If you must borrow money, Horne recommends you take loans through your future college or the FAFSA, and avoid private lenders. The seemingly great deals from private lenders can get you into trouble, she says, and have helped cause many of the student loan horror stories you see on the news.

5. Apply for free or reduced lunches

If your family qualifies, be sure to apply for free or reduced lunches, even if you don't plan on eating them. Being on the list can waive you from college application fees, and let you take the SAT, ACT or SAT subject tests for free.

6. Buy textbooks used

The cost of a quarter's textbooks could buy you a designer handbag. To save money, buy books used.

Prowl the Internet because used textbooks may be cheaper online than at your college bookstore. And don't burn your despised textbooks at the end of the quarter because many college bookstores will buy them back.

7. Community college

The CC route is a cash-savvy way to complete all your general courses for a fraction of what it would cost at a four year college.

For example, Wenatchee Valley College costs roughly $5,500 a year for 2012-13. That's about one-fifth of what it costs to go to an in-state, public university (Western Washington University and University of Washington cost about $22,200 and $26,100 a year), and about 10 percent of what is costs to go to an in-state, private college (Whitman College and Whitworth University cost about $54,100 and $43,700 a year).

Plus, you can cut down living expenses dramatically, while enjoying the perks of living at home. No college cafeteria beats home-cooked meals.

8. Join the Running Start program

It's a great (free) way to get college credit.

You can join the program the fall of your junior year as a part- or full-time student. Part-time students take a few classes at Wenatchee Valley College's Omak or Wenatchee campuses and classes at their high school; full-timers take 15 credits at the college and one or no classes at their high school.

If you plan it right, you can graduate from high school with an associate degree, and may receive junior status when you go to a four-year school.

Even if you're a part-time Running Start student, you'll still be gaining valuable experience that will help you prepare for college.

If you're interested, be sure to attend a Running Start orientation at your high school the spring of your sophomore year. For more information, go to wvc.edu/directory/departments/runningstart.

9. Take advanced placement (AP) courses

By taking AP classes at your high school, you can earn up to a year of college credit (sophomore standing) at many colleges and universities, if you have a sufficient number of qualifying AP Exam scores.

The qualifications vary from school to school, so you'll want to look at college catalogs and websites to find out their AP policies. You can also track down this information using the AP Credit Policy Info search at collegesearch.collegeboard.com/apcreditpolicy/index.jsp.

10. Invest in guaranteed educational tuition (GET)

Parents, your kids may be less than 4-feet tall now, but before you know it, they'll be swinging their graduation tassels.

The GET program lets you purchase college tuition today, so you won't have to worry about rising prices tomorrow.

The state guarantees that 100 purchased GET units will cover one year of in-state, undergraduate tuition (along with state-mandated fees) at the most expensive public university in Washington state, even as the price of tuition goes up. For the 2012-2013 school year, Washington State University is the most expensive, costing about $27,300 a year.

One GET unit costs $172 for 2012-2013. Up to 500 units can be purchased per student, and can be transferred to other family members or refunded.

The monetary value of your GET account can be applied to nearly any college or university in the country, public or private.

GET administrators recommend buying units at least four or five years before your child is expected to enter college, that way you'll receive the most financial benefits. Some financial advisers recommend investing sooner.

An investment in GET should be carefully contemplated. In Washington's current economic state, legislators are considering revising GET for future buyers. These changes may decrease the benefits of the program.

For more information, visit get.wa.gov.

11. Minimize living expenses

You can't control the rising cost of tuition, but you can control your personal expenses.

By limiting frivolous expenses -- speciality coffee drinks, clothes, going out to eat, off-campus excursions -- you'll save money in the long run.

Leave your car at home when you go to college, then you won't have to pay for pricey on-campus parking. And if you want to go off campus, you can always carpool with friends or take public transportation -- many buses are free or have reduced fares for college students.

Look into off-campus living options if your college doesn't require you to live on campus; they may be cheaper than living in a college dorm and having a meal plan.

12. Find a job

Get a part-time job while you're in college -- just be sure you still have time to hit the books. There are many jobs available for college students, on and off campus.

Note: This story includes advice from Wenatchee High School counselors, and uses information from the The New York Times, Money magazine, and websites for Wenatchee Valley College, College Board, the U.S. Department of Education, Western Washington University, GET, University of Washington, Whitworth University, Whitman College and Washington State University.

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(c)2012 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)

Visit The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.) at www.wenatcheeworld.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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