The economy is in a funk. Wages are low, and unemployment is high. It can be difficult just to pay for rent and have enough money left for food each month. The saying "Education Pays" may very well be true. But more to the point from the student's perspective is, "who pays for the education?"
If you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth or graduated from high school with a wisely invested college fund ready to roll, it can be hard to finance a college degree. Add the commitment and cost of a family, a mortgage and maybe a car loan and it can seem downright impossible to quit a full-time job and go back to school.
The brunt of the cost of an education has slowly shifted back to the student. In the past, tuition was incredibly low compared to the wage you'd earn even at a modest job, and you didn't have to take out a second mortgage to pay for textbooks.
Also, the amount of time students must work to finance their education has increased to the point where students must work full-time all summer and keep at least a part-time, if not a full-time job, during the year. Gone are the days of carefree studying on the lawn by the library. Higher learning institutions cost a lot of money.
Keeping a job during school can cause academic performance to suffer, and some students just aren't able to work due to the high demands of their chosen field of study. But with a little legwork, there's still help for many students.
Most students apply for financial aid through the school they attend -- a process that may seem demanding and time consuming with its filling out of forms and bringing in all types of documentation, yet ultimately worth it if you get it done early.
"The number one problem students face when seeking financial aid is that there's just not enough money," says Darlene Hendrickson of Gonzaga University's financial aid office. "If they apply early, there are a number of programs and funds available, but the students who wait are limited and aren't able to get the funds they need."
Financial aid is largely dependent upon the student's, and, more likely, the student's parents' income. And it's often not enough to cover tuition and living expenses.
"A lot of parents are taking out second mortgages on their homes to pay for [children's] college educations because interest rates are so low right now," Hendrickson says. However, state grants coupled with a part-time job can be sufficient enough to cover school and living expenses -- but the budget probably doesn't include a $4 mocha every day or weekly shopping sprees at the local mall.
Many students cover the gap in their earnings with student loans. But beware the ever-tempting thought of quick money with no strings attached (at least for four years). Student loans are terribly easy to get and can end up being more of a hindrance than a help. Once you graduate, you also have to start paying back your loans, and that can be a big strain.
And don't put it all on your credit card either. Credit companies have been targeting college students for years now, and it's unfortunately sometimes easier to get a credit card with an astronomical limit than it is to get a cup of coffee during peak consumption hours. Avoid the plastic like the plague. Incredibly high interest rates coupled with the convenience of saying "charge it" are a recipe for disaster.
And in the meantime, tuition continues to go up. Some schools actually offer incentives to students with good academic performance. For instance, Eastern Washington University is offering incoming freshmen with a 3.8 GPA or better, and who meet application deadlines, a $2,000 scholarship.
The key to tapping into the right scholarships and programs is to start doing your research early -- don't wait until the first day of school.
"Students looking for funds need to start applying the January before the fall they are to start school," Hendrickson advises.
Sometimes specific departments at colleges offer smaller scholarships or grants, to students who meet either academic or specific social criteria.
"There are a lot of outside scholarships available, but they are very competitive and very specific," Hedrickson says. "Money is available and the scholarships are awarded, but there aren't many available."
She adds that sometimes these scholarships go unclaimed because of the lack of interest, but they are out there.
Financing an education is serious business and a smart student knows where to find the resources to complete projects, even if it means going a different route than first anticipated.
For instance, when was the last time you considered joining the Army to pay for school? And have you checked out government-funded programs such as AmeriCorps?
The military often offers bonuses to enlistees who plan on going to, or are already in college. The Montgomery G.I. Bill allows for up to 36 months of funding for education, for a reservist with a six-year obligation.
AmeriCorps is a fantastic resource for financing college. The program offers full and part-time commitments, a modest working wage, and a yearly $4,725 education grant for full-time participants with a two-year maximum. Participants receive health insurance, training in specified fields and student loan deferment. AmeriCorps offers students or potential students a variety of employment situations as well as a legitimate opportunity to earn money for college.
There are many options as well as obstacles in the world of education finance. Traditional methods may be the easiest to acquire, but some research and a little hard work might yield a more rewarding return.
Hendrickson's final piece of advice is this: "Make sure you check with your financial aid office to be sure everything is in order. Also, do well in school. If your academic performance is poor, you endanger the funds you will receive the following quarter."