Helping families find ways to pay for education

Financial advisers in colleges and universities have a language all their own, and they speak in acronyms — FAFSA, PLUS, SAP, SAR and, depending on the state where you live, other lists of even more. Add to that terms like subsidized or unsubsidized, deferment, forbearance, consolidation and the one that no one wants to hear — default. (See sidebar)

“It can be overwhelming for many families in understanding the different programs and all the paperwork involved, and all the different kinds of loans,” said Janet Riis, director of financial aid at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., a private college founded by and related to the Diocese of Helena (www.carroll.edu/). “It would be great if we could get one grant program and one loan. It would help to simplify things because it’s so complex.”

But that’s not how it works. Students and their families looking for money face mountains of what used to be paperwork. Now the process is invariably online and accompanied by passwords, security questions and sometimes confusing links and procedures. 

Managing debt

Riis sits on the board of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and received the Professional of the Year Award from the Montana Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“Montana requires debt management counseling for anyone borrowing student loans,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “And we at Carroll also do extra counseling and our students go through budget debt management, and credit counseling. We go that extra step because we want them to be fully aware of what they are getting into, what debt they will incur while they are here.”

The extra step works. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in fiscal year 2008, the average student default rate on federal loans rose to 7 percent. Montana had the lowest rate in the nation, led by Carroll College with a zero percent default and the rate there continues to hover near zero.

“We have responsible borrowers and responsible students,” Riis said. “They obtain jobs when they graduate and are able to repay their loans, which on average, are comparable to loans students have for public institutions.” 

Difficult topic

Getting through the grant and financial aid applications successfully is crucial but not always easy, especially in the first year, when the process is unfamiliar. 

“Financial aid is not an easy topic for many families to talk about, particularly when it comes to stretching what a family has, or what they can manage,” said Sandra J. Oliveira, executive director of financial aid at Providence College in Providence, R.I., (www.providence.edu) where default is about 1 percent.  

“Many families are reluctant to share information about their finances, but we in financial aid or the front line officials have a very nice way of letting families know that the information they share can be very valuable. It can help us to craft a solution to help make it work for them,” she added. 

In Oliveira’s opinion, one of the biggest mistakes that families make is in not looking at all the information that an individual school requires in the financial aid application process. Each school might ask for different documentation, and deadlines aren’t always the same. 

“Try to send things out by the earliest deadline to everybody. Then you are covered,” Oliveira told OSV. “Some families wait too long to get their tax information more solid, but it’s better to look at the best estimate rather than exact numbers. They worry about being as accurate as possible, but they shouldn’t wait that extra time. We wouldn’t want students to miss out on aid considerations because their applications are incomplete or haven’t been filed on time.” 

Knowing the guidelines

There also are different application guidelines for sources that may or may not take a family’s savings or home equity into consideration, and whether or not other children are in college. 

Sometimes face to face counseling can help families to understand those differences and what a particular institution needs to know.  

And also, Oliveira said, some parents might not know the right questions to ask or they may be overlooking crucial information that can help them. This is especially important in the formula that’s used to determine grants based on a family’s financial ability to contribute to educational expenses. 

“They may not know to tell us about medical expenses they have that insurance won’t cover,” she told OSV. “Some families don’t share that they recently experienced a job loss, or that they have expenses related to other children in the household. If they don’t see a spot for those things on the form itself, they don’t know that they can tell us about some of those things that would affect their ability to contribute.” 

Exploring every option

Riis recommends looking at every possible source of scholarship, as well as grants and loans. 

“We have a parish scholarship for Montana and there are all sorts of different scholarships for leadership and any activities,” she said. “If a student likes writing for the school newspaper, or singing in the choir, or forensics or any type of activity that makes for a more rounded student and that will engage them in the community, there can be scholarships available.” 

Work studies and paid internships also can be a source of support while providing real world experience that make graduates more employable. 

And at Carroll College, qualifying working students can apply for the Matched Education Savings Account.  

It works like this: If a student saves $500 in six months during their education, they are eligible for an 8 to 1 matching grant, up to $4,000, from MESA, which is partnered with the Montana Credit Union Network and the Student Assistance Foundation based in Helena.  

Participants also must complete a debt management program that teaches personal financial skills, money management and how to save. 

“This is the first year that we have been involved in this pilot program and we had our first student take out the first withdrawal for her books,” Riis told OSV. 

Carroll College does something else to help students keep down expenses. 

“We accommodate our students so that they can graduate in four years,” said the college’s public relations director, Ashley Oliverio. “If they need a class, we will accommodate them with that one extra seat. We don’t play the game that is being played in some institutions where students have to stay five or even six years to get the classes that they need to graduate. And yes, that is going on in some places, and it’s an untold story.” 

After graduation

Colleges and universities have exit counseling so that graduates know the amounts of their loans and where their loans are, in case their lending institutions transfer their accounts to other lenders.  

Students can also keep track on the National Student Loan Data Base System (www.nslds.ed.gov). 

“If you ever need to know where your loans are, check out their website,” Riis said. “It’s important to make sure that you don’t forget about any of the loans that could go into default.” 

Unless students ask for a forbearance or deferment based on unemployment or other hardships, most loan repayments start six months after graduation.  

Depending on the lender, there may be several payment options based on income and other considerations.  

Graduates also can consolidate all their loans into the federal Direct Loan program that offers tuition loan forgiveness for certain professionals.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.