FINANCIAL AID: EXPERT OPINION
Paying for College in Tough Economic Times
The unprecedented economic difficulties roiling our nation are making it increasingly difficult for families to pay for college and for colleges to provide financial aid to the increasing number of students who need it.
High school seniors, their parents, and adults who want to return to school to learn new job skills in order to enhance their employability and future job security are struggling to pay for rising college costs at the same time that wages are falling (or being eliminated) and home equity is declining. More people than ever are applying for the same amount of financial aid dollars.
Meanwhile colleges and universities are working to do more with fewer resources. Their operating costs and student enrollment continue to increase, and many are bracing for reduced funding support by cash-strapped states. In addition, many schools are watching their endowment investments plummet with the stock market. To compensate for these drains on their budgets, many colleges and universities are forced to cut spending and increase tuition and fees.
Within all this bleak news, there are some bright spots – although you may have to strain your eyes to see them. The federal government has acted swiftly and decisively to ensure that students will continue to have access to federal student aid. Further, President-elect Barak Obama and leaders in Congress have been talking about including additional student aid funding in legislation designed to stimulate the floundering economy.
Colleges and universities are also aware of the financial difficulties many families are facing. Despite their own budget troubles, most institutions are doing all they can to keep tuition and fees down and to provide sufficient financial aid to those who need it.
For those struggling to pay for college or debating whether to attend or complete their degree, I offer the following advice.
First, don’t give up. A college education in the best investment you can make, so make sure you earn that degree or certificate.
Second, review all your college options. Colleges and universities come in all shapes, sizes and costs. Before assuming that you can’t afford college, make sure you investigate schools with a smaller price tag, and compare financial aid packages and total costs. Pay attention to the type of aid you will receive and whether it must eventually be repaid, in addition to the bottom line.
Third, don’t miss out on any financial aid. Many people don’t receive financial aid simply because they don’t apply. Make sure you complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You should also contact the financial aid office at the schools you hope to attend. Financial aid administrators are dedicated to helping students and parents overcome financial barriers to education. They can help you.
The current economic challenges offer us an opportunity to rethink financial aid programs at the federal, state, local, and institutional levels, and ensure that the funding reaches the neediest students. Unfortunately, our financial aid programs have not done enough to help low-income, minority, and first-generation college students to enroll and succeed in college. These are the fastest growing student populations in the United States. If we don’t do a better job of getting these students through college, we risk losing our position as a global leader.
Ultimately, making college accessible and affordable is a matter of priorities. If making higher education affordable is a top national priority, lawmakers will find the funds needed to achieve that goal. We must insist that our lawmakers and policymakers keep higher education affordability at the very top of our national priorities. The future of the nation depends on it.#
Dr. Philip Day is President and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).