Three alternatives: the financial roadmap to college

New changes to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) will impact approximately 22 million college students and families. Starting this year, students and parents can submit the FAFSA® application in October using the previous tax year’s income information. No longer will parents have to rush to make sure their taxes are filed by the FAFSA® deadline. Instead, they can pull out last year’s tax forms, hop on the computer and navigate to the United States Department of Education’s website to file the application. In addition, students will still be able to utilize the IRS data retrieval tool annually to import their household’s tax information, which will likely decrease errors when filling out the required information.

Once the application is completed and processed, the student’s college of choice will calculate eligiability for financial aid based on the household’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) score. This score will allow a college’s financial aid department to determine what types of financial aid a student is eligible for. Then, the student will receive an award letter that specifies available financial aid through federal, state and educational entities. But, if a student’s EFC score is too high, grants may not be awarded. Of course, federal government loans will most likely be awarded, but this type of financial aid must be repaid after graduating or leaving college. Unfortunately, “a record share of students are leaving college with a substantial debt burden, and among those who do, about half (48 percent) say that paying off that debt made it harder to pay other bills,” according to Pew Research Center. To help alleviate this type of repayment obligation, three alternatives exist to build a financial roadmap to college.

Scholarships

Searching for scholarships online has never been easier. With a little time, students and families can discover hundreds of scholarships that can make a dent in tuition expenses. For example, an online favorite, Fastweb.com, is a free service with a database of approximately 1.5 million scholarships. This online scholarship finder matches user profiles to an estimated $3.4 billion in scholarship funds. Another option, Scholarships.com, is a reputable site that has benefited over 16 million students for almost two decades. If these online scholarship finders don’t meet your profile criteria, check out CollegeData.com, StudentScholarshipSearch.com, Colleges.Niche.com, and
CollegeNet.com.

Scholarship opportunities also exist on the local level. Students and families should talk with high school guidance counselors, employers, churches, and of course their local electric cooperative. Each year, the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) awards ten $2,000 scholarships to high school seniors in the Illinois electric cooperative family through the Thomas H. Moore Illinois Electric Cooperatives Memorial Scholarship Fund. Besides the AIEC scholarships, local Illinois electric cooperatives award up to 65 scholarships ranging from $500-$2,000. After checking with your electric co-op, students and family members should contact civic, nonprofit organizations, and local banks. For instance, Farm Credit Illinois, awards 24-$2,000 scholarships to high school seniors pursuing a career in the agriculture field and who reside in one of the 60 Illinois counties the association serves.

Crowdfunding and rebates

Give the gift of college! Rather than giving a gift directly to an individual for birthdays or holidays, donate to a college fund through GradSaveGifts.org. To donate, a 529 Plan is required to make deposits from contributors. Another online educational gift resource is GiveCollege.com.  Through GiveCollege.com, parents can add events and hold fundraisers to secure funds for college. This website offers several suggestions to host fundraisers. For example, donations could be made each time a child earns an “A” on their report card. Or for those interested in incentivizing students through sports, funds can be raised each time a touchdown, goal or homerun is made.

Another option to save for college is through rebate programs. UPromise.com offers a rebate program to earn cash by shopping online. Individuals can sign up for a free account and shop at over 850 retailers. Some of the major retailers include Expedia, Walmart and Staples. Households can even earn cash rewards by dining out at different partner restaurants. However, to receive and earn cash, individuals will be required to register their credit or debit card. UPromise.com also offers eCoupons by activating grocery and drug store loyalty cards. Some of the participating stores include County Market, CVS, HyVee and Jewel-Osco. UPromise.com benefits anyone that would like to increase college savings plans or reduce student loan debt
after graduation.

Workplace opportunities

To help offset college expenses, students can contact their employer’s human resources department to determine if they provide educational benefits. For instance, some companies provide tuition assistance to advance a student’s educational goals. Plus, employers benefit from the employee gaining new skills and knowledge to help them succeed in a field related to their current job. However, to receive this benefit, employers may require students to remain with the company for a designated timeframe. Additionally, companies may provide tuition waivers or reductions as a benefit to students. Sometimes employers partner with educational institutions to provide continuing education and training for their employees. A third option employers may provide includes employee scholarships. Ask your company for details if they offer any of these options. You may be surprised to find they can help you obtain your educational aspirations.

Is college worth the cost? Attending college is a worthwhile financial investment that can increase an individual’s annual earnings. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, adults between the ages of 25-34, that hold a bachelor’s degree, earn 66 percent higher income compared to those with a high school diploma. Besides gaining more income, attending college can unlock new opportunities, such as internships and potential new job offers. By researching alternative funding resources, students can reduce the need for government funded loans. To find more alternatives to help pay for college, contact your student’s high school counselor today.

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