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Should the Economy Affect Your College Search?

November 03, 2008 By: Category: Aid for College, Choosing a College

Although Halloween is over, your scariest concern may not be. With all this talk about the economic downturn, you might be wondering how the economy will affect your college search.  With a sagging stock market, federal bailouts, and an increasing unemployment rate, our economy might look more like a haunted house than the dilapidated house down the street.  What does this mean for your college plans?  Should you delay going to college and simply enter the work force?  Can you afford college?  Should you avoid applying to certain colleges because of their cost?  These are valid questions, but I encourage you to take a deep breath.  You’ll get through it.  And let me tell you how… 

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 Photo by md91180

1.  Keep your eyes on the prize.  Stay focused on the long-term benefits of college.  According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, a 2008 college graduate is likely to earn 90% more than a high school graduate over the course of a lifetime. Although higher education costs can be overwhelming — in the end, the numbers work out.   College graduates earn an average of $59,365 per year while high school graduates earn an average of $33,609.    

2.  Be patient.  Times might look bleak now, but you won’t begin college for another 9-10 months.  Moreover, your college graduation is almost 5 years away.  While it’s easy to get caught up with the hype about the stock market, it’s more important to look at the big picture.  The country’s financial situation, and even your own financial situation, could look markedly different in a few months.  

 3.  Remember to keep your options open.  Even in this time of financial uncertainty, it’s important not to rule out any colleges because of their sticker cost.  Across the country, colleges use many strategies to help families find ways to pay for college.  A quick look at the financial aid section of College Navigator shows that both public and private colleges have different levels of funding support for their students.  I typically recommend that students create a list of 4-6 schools which includes low, mid and high tuition cost colleges.  

4.   Visit your short-list of colleges as early as possible.  While you are on your campus visits, ask about merit-based and need-based financial aid opportunities.  Ask specifically about deadlines and the required paperwork for consideration.  I’ve seen too many students wait until the spring of their senior year to start thinking about scholarships and financial aid.  By that time, most awards have already been allocated.  As the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. 

5.  Complete the FAFSA.  Regardless of your income or your parents’ income, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).   You can submit the FAFSA as early as January 1.   Many families underestimate what they might receive through the FAFSA process.  Additionally, the FAFSA process provides government-supported loans to help cover the cost of college.  With loan approval processes for private loans becoming more stringent, federal support makes smart sense.   Additionally, a growing number of colleges require the FAFSA for certain scholarships.  Don’t miss an easy opportunity for additional financial support.  Just like Halloween, loans can be scary–but they are are growing reality of higher education.  Research your options and look at the long term impacts of borrowing for college.  For example, families can look at repayment costs through financial aid and loan repayment calculators like the ones on www.finaid.org to help gauge the true cost of college.   

6.  Consider a part-time job.  Through career centers and internship offices, college students have priviledged access to a variety of employment opportunities.  While the traditional definition of a college internship often references an unpaid or volunteer position, more and more student internships are now paid.  Internships help cover your short-term financial needs and provide you with practical, hands-on experience which will prove beneficial in the long-run.   Aditionally, you might consider a part-time job now.  Extra savings can help with book money and those late night pizzas next year. 

7.  Live on-campus or at home.  Many freshmen want to enjoy life on their own for the first time, so they rent an off-campus apartment with some friends.  Often the cost of off-campus housing is greater than the on-campus options, especially once you add commuting costs such as gasoline and a parking pass.  Moreover, by living on campus, you’ll get to know your classmates and develop a greater sense of belonging with your college.  There is typically a direct correlation between student satisfaction and living on campus.  On the other hand, for those of you who plan to attend college in your hometown, consider living at home.  While I think it is more difficult to feel connected with your college if you live at home, it’s a pragmatic choice that many students make in order to achieve their educational aspirations.   

These bullet points are just a few ways that you can address your concerns about the college planning process.  The financial markets have created scary times indeed–with or without Halloween.  But if you plan early, the college search process shouldn’t be too scary.  It will work out for you, and you’ll soon find out that attending college is one of the best moves–financially and professionally–that you’ll ever make.