For over 25 years, I have presented to audiences at high schools and college fairs. Before I present, I ask a number of questions to better understand my audience. One question I ask is how many folks in attendance have either high school juniors and/or seniors. Invariably, the majority raise their hand and I (somewhat) jokingly respond that for these parents, it is not a financial aid presentation night, but a financial aid “panic” night. While the audience is kind and either smile or chuckle, for the majority this is a fact: families have not adequately planned and saved for college costs.
At this point in each presentation, it is not my intent to heap guilt on these families. After all, each and every one of us have unique situations which require our resources to be prioritized. I share with an audience funding opportunities from various sources: schools, federal government, state government, outside scholarship entities, high schools guidance counseling offices, and database search engines. Depending on the income and academic levels, scholarships and grants can stack up pretty high, but generally not enough to cover 100% of costs--this can certainly make a dent in our own personal finances.
Whether you have been able to carefully plan for financing college or feel like you're in "panic mode," it's important to know what options are available for college aid, grants, and scholarships. Here are a few things parents of high schoolers should keep in mind as they prepare and plan for financing college:
Courses Taken in High School
When my daughters were young (elementary school), I used to tell them that when they get to 9th grade, their grades greatly matter (of course, this actually started in 8th grade with Math and English courses). While grades and GPA are not the sole indicator of scholarship opportunities, having a child take Advanced Placement courses may greatly benefit your child and reduce incurred costs later. Ohio also has the College Credit Plus Program, which is a dual enrollment program for students in grades 7-12. Students may take courses at a college or university and receive college and high school credit simultaneously. (While there are financial benefits of CCP, there may be drawbacks for some families. Check out one parent's experience with this program to learn more.)
Also, if you live near a school and are able to take courses at a local college, you may do this and generally charges are cheaper due to the fact the student is still a high school student.
I often tell families that while a student is in high school, your best friends are your high school guidance counselors. Outside companies that offer scholarships often view high schools as a distribution center and send information to the Guidance Counseling office. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Walmart, ABWS, civic clubs, etc., send information. Often communities and cities have agencies that offer scholarships. Those of us who work in the colleges and universities will not know about them, but they exist and are tailored to the local community families.
Scholarship Search Engines
Years ago when the “world wide web” was new and rushing onto the scene, opportunities to apply opened up a new (and more efficient) avenue for aid opportunities. One of these is fastweb.com. This is a legitimate search engine and it works in this manner: the applicant provides information on themselves such as GPA, standardized test scores, involvement in school (Student Government, Debate, Drama, Athletics, etc.), involvement in the local community (scouting, Habitat for Humanity, homeless shelters, etc.) and submits the information. The students will receive, on average, three to four emails back with matches and links for the applicant to review and exercise due diligence. My school was recruiting a track star and I told her about this site (thinking she had not heard of it). She replied, “I have heard of it and I actually am getting a scholarship through it.” I asked her the name and her exact response was (this is no joke), “I don’t remember the official name but it is for left-handed athletes with asthma.” A year later, speaking as a panelist at a presentation, a father stands up and informs the audience his son received the same exact award. Ensure that your search engines are legitimate (this one is) and apply away.
State Aid Programs
Most states have various merit and need-based aid programs. For example, Ohio has several but one is called the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG). This is predicated on the financial strength of the applicant and family (AGI, assets, untaxed benefits, etc.).
Federal Aid Programs
Through the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), aid offerings will be determined (to include grants, work-study, and federal loans).
College Financial Aid Offices
This becomes key as you begin applying to colleges and universities. Whether this be 4, 2, or 1-year schools or programs, public or private, check with the financial aid office for offerings. Generally, private institutions will have offerings that many public institutions do not have. You will want to inquire about merit and need-based offerings, as well as departmental scholarships (athletics, music, art, etc.).