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Help is available to make college a reality

The annual scramble for parents and students to complete the federal government’s college student aid form won’t be as tight anymore.

Beginning this fall, the government is changing the timeframe to make the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) a little easier, said Joan Jurek, director of college planning with EducationQuest Foundation in Omaha, a nonprofit organization providing free college planning and other assistance to students and their parents.

"The big paradigm shift that’s about to happen this fall is that students will have the opportunity to file their 2017-2018 FAFSA form earlier, beginning Oct. 1, using the 2015 income tax return," she said.

In the past, the FAFSA application could not be filled out until after Jan. 1, and it required a completed tax return for the year just ended.

Because seeking financial aid starts with that application, the changes will give parents and students more time to make decisions and communicate with schools, Jurek said.

The FAFSA confirmation page continues to tell families three things – what the family contribution is expected to be, whether they qualify for Pell grants, and what kind of student loan eligibility they have, she said.

This should help students see what financial aid is available and encourage them to submit college applications, she said.

Although published tuition and fees for full-time attendance, adjusted for inflation, have increased during the past 10 years – from 26 percent for private nonprofit four-year schools up to 40 percent for public institutions – there is some good news, according to the "Trends in College Pricing 2015" report published by the College Board.

The average net tuition and fees – what students actually pay – at Catholic and other private colleges increased only slightly over 10 years (in 2015 dollars), from $14,700 to $14,890, the report said.

"Significant efforts are underway to raise funds to provide scholarships and grants on most college campuses," said Kristin Roach, executive director of admissions and financial aid with the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

Several avenues for financial aid are available, she said, including endowed and restricted scholarships (often awarded based on academic major or donor-specific criteria) and competitive scholarships, federal and state grants, federal subsidized and unsubsidized student loans, and work study or student employment.

"In fact, all students are able to seek employment at St. Thomas regardless of the family financial situation," she said.

"We also partner with several organizations to match scholarships they offer students," Roach said, "like the National Merit Scholarship program, Leaders for Tomorrow, Dollars for Scholars, Page Scholarship and SAGE scholars."

"And we try to help students through advising," she said. "We spend significant time educating students about financial literacy and encouraging them to make wise choices to keep their costs down," including choice of housing and meal plans, and options for purchasing or renting books.

"I also encourage students to take the time to pursue local scholarships," Roach said. Sources might be high schools, local service organizations, a parent’s employer, churches and other organizations.

"Sometimes students need to write essays to compete for these scholarships. I tell students, ‘if you spend two hours writing a scholarship essay and you win a $1,000 scholarship – you just earned $500 an hour.’ It’s worth the effort."

KEEP AN OPEN MIND

Students should not assume any school is out of reach – but still keep options open. "Have a range of schools in mind, and make three lists – a list of dream schools, one that is realistic, and a list of fallbacks. Then narrow the list down to four-to-six schools to actually apply to." – Joan Jurek, director of college planning with EducationQuest Foundation in Omaha.

"Visit college campuses late in the junior year or early in the senior year of high school. If possible, visit many different types of schools (large, small, urban, rural, private, public) to develop a sense of where the student will feel most comfortable." – Kristin Roach, executive director of admissions and financial aid with the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

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