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Help available for students applying for, financing college

The challenges of choosing, applying to and paying for college can be daunting for high school seniors and their parents.

Those topics top the list of concerns heard each year by Joan Jurek, director of college planning for EducationQuest Foundation, a Lincoln-based nonprofit providing free help to college-bound students to plan and find ways to finance their education.

“Right before school starts, we see a significant increase in calls related to college costs and getting enrolled,” Jurek said of families with college on the horizon.

But it’s important to start thinking about, planning and saving for college as early as possible.

“Ideally at birth,” Jurek said. But that doesn’t mean families should fret if they haven’t thought about the financial aspect of college until their child enters high school, she said.

Nebraska’s 529 College Savings Plan offers parents a financially advantageous way to save for college, with the earnings portion of withdrawals used for qualified educational expenses being free of federal and state income taxes.

Students also can apply for grants and scholarships, including scholarships from private sources and other organizations, Jurek said. Students should be looking into these right now, as well as work study options that most colleges offer.

The important thing to remember, Jurek said, is to research what is offered by those schools the student is interested in attending.

And families can always apply for financial aid, she said, using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While not all colleges require students to submit a FAFSA before applying for merit-based scholarships, some do, so students should check with their colleges of interest to find out the requirements, Jurek said.

Although the application process can be intimidating at first, there are resources, such as EducationQuest, to help families get through it, she said.

Jurek said she advises families to have a parent walk through the process with the student. Both the student and the parent need to set up an account on the www.studentaid.gov website. Each must have their own username and password, as this FAFSA requirement allows them to electronically sign and submit the application.

Families can begin filling out their FAFSA on Oct. 1 when the portal opens, using their 2019 income tax return information, Jurek said.

MORE THAN MONEY

Figuring out how to pay for college is just one important aspect of the college selection and application process, said Pam Wieser, a 7th-through-12th-grade guidance counselor at Norfolk Catholic Junior/Senior High School.

“Students need to take into account what they’re interested in studying and what degree they are working towards when determining what college to attend,” she said.

If at all possible, take the time to visit the campus, eat in the cafeteria, walk the grounds and really get a feel for the climate there, she said.

“Students should be asking themselves, ‘Can I see myself here?’” Wieser said.

Right now, due to the pandemic, some schools are restricting the number of students they are allowing to visit, or are eliminating the opportunity altogether, so it’s best to call ahead, she said. Many provide a virtual visit option.

Wieser also advises talking to a family member, friend or acquaintance who may already be attending the school who can tell the student more about their experiences there.

If a student is interested in attending a Catholic university, there might be financial incentives offered to help offset the costs of tuition, so they should inquire, said Elizabeth Souba, a school guidance counselor at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha.

“I tell students that faith can have a deeper impact on their education and should be taken into consideration when they are looking at their choices,” she said.

CATHOLIC CONSIDERATIONS

Students who chose to attend a Catholic university tend to form a stronger sense of community by virtue of not only attending classes together, but taking part in faith-based service opportunities and worshipping together, Souba said.

“It creates a more supportive environment that can lead to richer, more meaningful connections that help the student along their educational journey.”

And even if they aren’t attending a Catholic university, some secular schools have faith-based residence halls, such as the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, that offer students a faith community, said Wieser.

Souba said she encourages students to delay considering the financial aspects of a college education until they first consider the following facets:

– What college or university is the best fit in terms of size and location?

­– Does the school offer degree programs in subject areas in which the student is considering a possible career, along with internships or volunteer opportunities that support their chosen career?

– What social activities, on and off campus, are offered?

Then families should assess whether they can afford the costs associated with the schools being considered, Souba said.

FINANCIAL INCENTIVES

More universities are making higher education more affordable by freezing tuition or offering free tuition if the student meets certain financial criteria, Jurek said.

Citing the financial hardships many students and families face in the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Nebraska froze tuition rates for the next two academic years, 2021-2023.

The university also expanded its existing need-based financial aid program to cover full tuition costs for Nebraska students with family incomes of $60,000 or less. Other schools such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville are offering incoming students a tuition-free semester.

Jurek advises students and their families to inquire with the schools they are interested in to find out what financial incentives are being offered regarding tuition.

But regardless of the cost, Wieser said, she tells her students, “There is no doubt that pursuing a higher education will pay dividends later in life – it is priceless.”

COLLEGE FINANCIAL AID

EducationQuest offers a virtual statewide financial aid information session that covers the types of financial aid available, the FAFSA application and the process colleges use to determine financial aid eligibility.

High school juniors, seniors and/or parents or guardians are encouraged to attend. They can find links to details and registration at educationquest.org/events. Upcoming virtual programs being offered in English and Spanish are:

English:

  • Sept. 21 – 6:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 22 – noon
  • Sept. 23 – 6 p.m.
  • Sept. 24 – noon

Spanish:

  • Sept. 21 – 5:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 22 – 5:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 23 – noon
  • Sept. 24 – 6:30 p.m.

The EducationQuest Virtual College Fair is Sept. 27-30 and will allow students to visit virtually with colleges across Nebraska and the nation. For many other college planning resources, visit educationquest.org.