Archive for Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Financial aid office a must stop for returning students

July 15, 2009

The decision has been made to go back to college, but now here comes the big question: How will you pay for this new, expensive endeavor?

As adults embark on the challenging and sometimes scary journey of college for the first time or returning after several years, what can be even scarier is the price tag attached. But financial aid advisers with area universities known for their successful adult education programs say it doesn’t have to be scary if the perspective student puts in some work.

“I would say that is no longer the case,” said Jeanne Mott, director of financial aid at Baker University in Baldwin, about the stereotype that schools only focus on traditionally young students. “Our population has really changed. Nontraditional students are given a lot more attention than five years ago. Most schools have scholarship opportunities for transfer students, whether they’re the traditional age or nontraditional.”

There are several steps a student must take to begin their search for the financial aid that fits them best. The first, and most important, is the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“First of all, the heart and soul of financial aid is the FAFSA,” Mott said. “Everyone needs to complete that form for the year they are going back to school.”

The FAFSA will determine a student’s need financially and will determine if the student will get any assistance from the federal government.

The next step, Mott said, is for a student to determine their status when entering the school of their choice. Mott said different grants, scholarships and loans are available for freshmen, transfer students and people going for their first bachelor degree. Whatever your status, Mott said you wouldn’t know what’s available to you until this step is clarified.

Now comes your different financial options.

Judy Woelfel, financial aid coordinator with the Ottawa University campus in Overland Park, said she advised incoming students who have a job and are furthering their education to ask their employer about tuition assistance programs. She also said students who know what they want to major in could check with professional groups about private scholarships available for their particular field.

While she said she’s heard from many students that their employer has cut back on their tuition-aid programs due to the economy, she said you’d never know until you ask.

Another avenue are federal Pell Grants, given to students based on their family income. The grant does not have to be paid back and is intended to help the lower income people getting their first bachelor’s degree and could total as much as $5,350 in assistance.

More traditionally, however, Woelfel said nontraditional students most likely find themselves having to take out loans.

“With the economy the way it is, we have students that say they might as well go back to school, but on the other hand, they’re not sure they want to take on debt. It’s expensive. It’s a problem,” Woelfel said.

Through federal programs, Woelfel said students could take out a subsidized loan or an unsubsidized loan. A subsidized loan, which currently has an interest rate of 5.7 percent, is for lower-income students and the government pays the interest on the loan while the student is in school. An unsubsidized loan, which currently has an interest rate of 6.8 percent, will have the students pay interest while in school or roll it over until they’ve graduated.

In the end, the officials with both schools say the most important step an incoming student can take is to working closely with their chosen school’s financial aid office.

“I would really say the nontraditional students have been gaining in numbers for several years — and not just as a result of economy changes,” Mott said. “Adult learners are very important and many universities have been adding different formats and different programs all targeted to the adult learner. The economy may be reinforcing that, but more than that it’s bringing attention to the adult learner.”

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