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Harris: Preparing for College and Beyond

By Charlestien Harris

It’s graduation season! In fact, I just got back from my grandson’s celebration last week in Alabama. But May can also be a time of reflection and preparation.

Finances are a large part of why many students choose not to attend their first choice college or university. Many students end up moving to a school much closer to home, or staying home to save money and lower the costs of earning a degree. Financial planning for college is often neglected until time passes and senior year has arrived. You may still be able to attend college and survive financially. Figuring out how you’re going to pay for college can seem like a huge challenge. Everyone’s life and situation is different, and with so many financial aid options and financial guides available, creating a plan that works for you can be quite a process. The best course of action starts with understanding all of your options. So let’s look at five ways to finance your college education.

  1. Complete your FAFSA application. Completing and submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) might be the most important step you can take toward paying for college. By completing this form, you will be able to find out what types of federal aid you are eligible for. The FAFSA application will ask you to provide financial information about yourself and your family or guardians, including factors such as income, assets, and household size. Based on the information you provide, the U.S. Department of Education:
    • Calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) or the amount of money your family will need to contribute toward your education expenses.
    • Determine if you’re eligible for need-based grants, work-study opportunities, federal student loans, and more.
    • Completing the FAFSA accurately and promptly as soon as possible after October 1 of each year is essential to maximizing eligibility for all types of federal aid.
  2. Apply for as many scholarships as possible. This is an option I can talk about. One of my sons earned his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees on college scholarships. This option can also save you from having to apply for student loans, which can be very expensive to repay. Scholarships do not need to be repaid and should be one of your best options for paying for college. One type of scholarship is called a merit-based scholarship, which takes into account academic performance factors such as grade point average or standardized test scores. Other scholarships are need-based. Some need-based scholarships require you to demonstrate financial need by submitting the FAFSA. However, some scholarships are awarded based on a combination of merit and financial need. It’s best to start your scholarship search before your senior year of high school. Many scholarship opportunities have early application deadlines, limited funds available, and/or award funds to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis. So, submitting your application early can increase your chances of getting aid. Be sure to pay close attention to the requirements contained in the application. You may be rejected due to incomplete or missing information.
  3. Apply for tuition assistance from an employer. Many employers, especially in today’s workplace, offer undergraduate or graduate tuition assistance, according to a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. This can take the form of tuition reimbursement, where your employer reimburses you for tuition fees you have already paid, or a direct payment to your school on your behalf. The program offered by your employer may vary, so be sure to ask about the requirements. Some cover a certain percentage of tuition costs, others provide a flat amount for education expenses, and a few even offer to cover 100% of tuition costs. Keep in mind that some employers may require a minimum number of weekly hours worked to qualify for tuition assistance.
  4. Serving in the military is also an option. I can also talk about this option. My second son chose this option. He was able to get his degree paid for and used it to start his own business. Serving your country can help make your higher education dreams a reality. In fact, each military branch offers its own military tuition assistance program. Sometimes this can cover the entire cost of your college education, with some limitations. Be sure to do your due diligence to find out what the requirements are and what you need to do to take advantage of this benefit. Also take a look at the GI Bill, which covers tuition, fees, textbooks and other supplies for up to 36 months for military members and veterans at public colleges and universities.
  5. Try choosing a loan-free college. Imagine graduating from college without the burden of student loans. It sounds too good to be true, but there are loan-free schools that can make this a reality. Instead of taking out loans, you can benefit from free tuition through scholarships, on-campus jobs, or even your family’s income. The growing student debt crisis in the United States has led more colleges and universities to adopt no-loan policies. Although you still have to cover your living expenses and other costs, attending college without loans could save you tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs. Just keep in mind that the prospect of a free education comes with high competition for admission. But if you can make it happen, choosing to attend a loan-free school is a surefire way to graduate without weighing you down with debt.

Paying for college doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. You just need to do careful planning and detailed research to get the information you need to make the best financial choice when it comes to choosing a school.

For more information on this and other financial topics, visit our blog at banksouthern.com/blog, email me at [email protected] or call me at 662-624- 5776.

Until next week – stay in good financial shape!

Charlestien Harris is our financial contributor and is a financial expert with Southern Bancorp Community Partners whose articles are seen in a number of publications in the area.