College may be cheaper than you think

Families can benefit by learning the numbers

October 19, 2003|By Steve Rosen | Steve Rosen,KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

They can be two of the trickiest parts of the college process - determining tuition costs and exploring financial aid options.

That's why it's important for both parents and students to research the cost of attending college and to be aware of the many programs available that can make higher education more affordable.

Many families apparently don't have a clear sense of what it costs to attend college. And this lack of information may be keeping some kids from even applying to a school.

Those are two of the main conclusions from a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics. The report is available online at http://nces.ed.gov. The report is based on a 1999 survey of 7,910 sixth- through 12th-grade students (and their parents) by the National Household Education Surveys Program.

Many respondents tended to overestimate the cost of attending college. When asked to estimate the annual tuition at a public, four-year university, parents said it ranged upward from $5,366 and students said it ranged from $5,800. In fact, the average tuition in 1998-'99 was $3,247.

College costs have risen drastically since then. Still, many families remain uninformed, which, the report said, may "unnecessarily discourage" many from preparing for college."

Here are a few other conclusions from the survey:

There was a significant knowledge gap about college costs between lower- and higher-income families and between parents who ended their education at high school and those who were college graduates.

Thus, the report said, "those individuals who are potentially least able to afford college were also most likely to lack information about the cost of attending."

Parents who were involved in their children's schooling were more likely to have begun saving for college and were more aware of the financial demands of higher education.

Students who were involved in family decision-making were more likely to seek out information about college academic requirements and financial aid through discussions with parents, teachers and college counselors.

Those last two points should serve as notice for you to stay connected with your kids' education. Moreover, discussions of college costs can provide a perfect occasion for you to share family financial matters - namely how much you've stashed away for tuition bills - with your prospective college student.

Now, where can you get answers on college costs? Here are two new Web sites that were created to help students and parents understand financial issues and much more:

The Department of Education, in conjunction with the release of the college financing survey, has launched "Student Aid on the Web" at www. studentaid.ed.gov. The site is designed to guide parents and students through financial aid issues and the college planning process. A college savings calculator helps you determine how much you should be saving to cover college expenses.

The site even includes a resource called "Think College Early" for parents of grade school and middle school kids that, among other things, matches students' interests with jobs and careers.

Junior Achievement has created a Financial Aid Center on its Web site at www.ja.org. The center features a college planning calendar, student loan application information and loan information for parents.

I especially liked the site's loan repayment calculator that computes the estimated size of a monthly student loan payment, and a budgeting calculator that can help your student manage his or her money away from home.

The financial site is sponsored by the National Education Loan Network. As an added feature, the loan network's college planning advisers are available to answer questions by calling toll-free (866) 866-7372 or by sending e-mail to collegeplanningnelnet.net.

Here are some sources for obtaining free information about student financial aid:

A high school counselor's office. Counselors generally have a large selection of materials and know what recent graduates have received.

A college or career school financial aid office. Be sure to ask about institutional aid - money the school itself awards students.

The library. Materials are usually listed under "student aid" or "financial aid."

The Internet. Search using the keywords "student aid" or "financial aid."

My recent columns on allowances continue to draw a lot of comments from readers.

Lisa Thompson of Virginia Beach, Va., has a 12-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son:

"Instead of a weekly allowance, we pay out monthly. On the first of each month, our kids ... receive a lump sum which needs to last them for the entire month. They consider their purchases much more carefully now than they did with the once-a-week system. It's not that difficult to wait until next Saturday if you run out of money, but waiting until next month! Sheesh ... that's a different story!"

William Smallwood, who lives near Buhl, Idaho, reports:

"When our oldest was going into the fifth grade, we knew that he needed personal money, but I was opposed to an allowance-for-chores approach. ... At the same time, we were battling the chronic problem of kids wanting to spend too much time in front of the television. That is when I came up with an alternative plan: `How about us paying you 5 cents a page for reading books?'"

"This technique solved the two chronic kid-raising problems: how to provide them with spending money and how to keep them away from the television. In the process, it helped create four serious, if not voracious, readers."

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