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Higher Education – What It Really Costs

Diploma and graduation capWhile alternative education paths are on the rise, a traditional education track is still the most readily available to most high school graduating classes.  However, college, professional, and graduate schools are more costly than ever.  The cost of higher education surged more than five hundred percent since 1985.  In fact, higher education costs more than four times the amount it did thirty years ago.  Financial challenges are one of the largest qualifiers for non-completion of higher education.  Those lacking a financial cushion and even those with financial assistance, can easily find themselves underwater with the growing requirements and unexpected costs of higher education.  Many of these students find themselves caught between rising costs of completing their education and the jobs available to them if they do not. 

Many students assume that financial aid will aid those with scarce means achieve their education. But financial aid policies are often limited and do not fully cover the cost of attending classes.  Information regarding the cost of attending the institution usually comes from the institution itself.  These costs generally list tuition and fees, along with the estimate for books, supplies, transportation, room and board, and a few other expenses.  Federal law dictates that a college must include tuition and fees, books and supplies, transportation and living costs in their publicized costs.  Financial aid cannot exceed the school’s publicized costs, even if they are artificially low.

Up to fifty percent of students do not live on campus or with family, and their cost of living expenses vary due to distance to the school.  These varied costs, and off-campus costs, are not included in the figures provided by the school.  Schools do not often take into consideration the geographic cost of living adjustments and poverty thresholds in their specific communities or across the nation.

Due to the fact that college severely limits the time available to the student to obtain and/or be available for work, they often have to rely on their own means to fund their education.  More than one-third of the states have capped tuition in the past few years, but this has not reduced the cost of attending college.  This is because the cost of living has continued to rise, while financial aid has remained the same.  Financial aid is most beneficial in the first year, therefore making the cost of continuing their education past year one a considerably larger investment.  For some students, grants and scholarships can be resources that help in reducing their cost.  Eligibility for grants are often need-based upon the family’s financial strength.  However, the determination of that strength tend to be taken from few types of information.  The biggest forms of family debt, mortgages, auto loans, student loans and credit cards, are not included in these assessments.  Often times divorced or remarried families can be greatly affected when applying for financial aid or grants because the absent parent or step-parent’s income is included even if it cannot be accessed by the student.  Additionally, low, moderate, and even middle class income families also have the benefit of the student’s ability to work and assist with household expenses prior to the student going to college.  Once fully enrolled, the family often loses this income source, but the financial assistance assessment is not recalculated.

Grants and FAFSA must be applied for and renewed every year, even if the student makes no changes in their circumstances.  Grants and FASFA often have a requirement for both grade point average and pace progress.  One out of four students surveyed were unaware that the needed to meet academic requirements in order to maintain their grants or FAFSA status.  Additionally, students miss the fact that these must be renewed.  In the last year, up to twenty percent of FAFSA students failed to renew.  Students must also maintain full time enrollment.  This means carrying a full load of classes, thereby reducing the ability to work and possibly the ability to add a tutoring session on a subject of struggle.

To avoid the restrictions and limitations of FAFSA and grants, some students turn to loans in order to continue to afford their education.  But these can come at the price of having to pay these funds back.  In fact, twenty percent or more of the annual income of these students leaving college is borrowed to pay for one year of college.  Many students try to balance their education and work in order to begin paying back a loan prior to graduation.  This taxation of their time can bring study time to a halt and make finishing school harder.  This means that some students choose a college or degree program solely based upon what they can afford to pay back upon completion.

While financial resources may be scarce, here are some ways things to keep in mind:

  • Look into the true cost of attending college.  Use the information provided by the schools, but be sure to add in cost of living, reduced availability of work, tutors and other non-disclosed choices.
  • Look at shared housing and food options.  Some of the largest expenses after tuition and fees is the cost of living.  Be sure that your financial aid package correctly accounts for your living situation.
  • Make sure to calculate in your Expected Family Contribution, including changes made from the student no longer being part of the equation.  Make sure you understand the workload requirements, as well as GPA and pace requirements of any grants, scholarships and financial aid methods.  If you must have a work-study competent, be sure to secure that job immediately.
  • Make sure to research all loan avenues and determine what government funding versus private funding looks like in the long run.
  • If working alongside education is a must, be sure to calculate in travel to and from work, wardrobe requirements, meals, hours, job stability, and study impact.
  • Research any and all social benefit programs you may qualify for.

Many high schools and colleges have resources for assisting in finding out what your options are.  Be sure to reach out to them during the application process.

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