College financial aid process is a family affair
CHICAGO — February was Freak Out Month, errr, I mean, FAFSA Month. But, hey, same thing. And March is hardly better.
If the mere mention of FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which most colleges and universities use as the universal form for determining financial aid eligibility for grants and loans — doesn't strike fear in your heart, then you probably aren't staring down the possibility of not being able to afford to send your son or daughter to college this fall.
Even worse off than those who are already struggling to gather all the financial documents necessary to complete the lengthy application are the parents who are nursing the hope of landing scholarships, grants and student loans but have yet to hear about the FAFSA process.
Sorry, Illinoisans, the "priority deadline" — the cutoff to qualify for state-based college aid — was March 1. And funds were so limited that the state asked families to file "as soon as possible after Jan. 1, 2013."
Take heart, Texans, your budding scholars have until March 15 to meet their priority deadline and Mississippians until March 31.
As for everyone else whose students are deep into considering prospective campuses and majors, it's time to have some serious heart-to-heart conversations about how to pay for college.
And the No. 1 thing families need to know about applying for college financial aid is that it involves a ton of hard work.
First, the only way to triumph over the nightmare stories of students who graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt — or worse, drop out before earning a credential but still owing on loans — is to step out of your comfort zone and talk frankly about your child's hopeful expectations and the real-world limitations of parental help.
Probably the most shocking statistic I've heard about our country's trillion-dollar student-loan debt crisis is that Americans 60 and older are among the hardest hit.
Last spring, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that this demographic owes about $36 billion in student loans with about 10 percent of those loans delinquent.
Every parent wants to help their child through college but, as much smarter financial minds than mine have noted, it isn't wise to sign or co-sign your life away on someone else's education loan, even if that someone else is your baby. Plus, it might not be the best choice.
Research by Laura Hamilton, a sociology professor at University of California, found that while the common perception is that the more a family contributes to college costs, the more time students have to focus on studies, this may not be true. She reported that though students whose parents picked up most of the tab were likelier to graduate, their grade-point averages were lower than those of their peers, possibly because they had such a small stake in the financial aspects of their educations.
And then we have the question about whether a student should work while attending college. Over the past few years, there has been tension between those who are proud to have worked their way through and others who fear it puts students at risk of not performing well in school.
It's definitely a legitimate concern, especially if you're talking about students who haven't proved themselves to be high academic achievers. Yet, the American Psychological Association recently reported that African-American and Hispanic high school students who work long hours while attending school have more stable grades compared to whites and Asian-Americans working the same hours.
These studies shouldn't absolve parents from fretting about how college and its costs could make or break their child's future. But the tidbits could fuel the much-needed preparation and soul-searching required to confront some of the very real consequences of how to finance a family's college dreams.
Navigating these emotionally thorny issues is terribly hard work, but also the perfect precursor to the sometimes mind-boggling labor of applying for student aid. My husband and I already have our own student loans to pay off, and now we're planning on how to pay for college for our two sons. Believe me, it's a nightmare.
Esther Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.