Nan Austin

On Campus: Looking forward to college graduations of 2019

Students line up for financial aid, left, and munchies, right, on Aug. 20 at the Mary Stuart Rodgers administrative building at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock. Financial aid starts with filling out the FAFSA, now available for 2014 financial reporting.
Students line up for financial aid, left, and munchies, right, on Aug. 20 at the Mary Stuart Rodgers administrative building at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock. Financial aid starts with filling out the FAFSA, now available for 2014 financial reporting. naustin@modbee.com

With New Year’s past, college-bound high school seniors can start filling out the FAFSA, a universal (and free) financial information packet required by virtually all scholarships and student loan programs.

The full name is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which can be linked to the parents’ tax return starting Feb. 1 to streamline the process. Those of us with kids on college campuses now will need to update the forms with 2014 information.

Dreamers, take note: Noncitizens need to fill out the California Dream Act Application instead. Find it at www.caldreamact.org.

Kids nowhere near college age yet? Check out https://studentaid.ed.gov/prepare-for-college. There are elementary, junior high and every year of high school checklists to put that you-can-be-anything dream in motion.

Figure on spending roughly half an hour to fill out the FAFSA, according to the website, https://fafsa.ed.gov. It took me longer than that to fill out the parent portion, but I found out halfway through I did not have all the financial info I needed. Avoid that frustration by checking the worksheet, provided in a PDF, that lays out the questions asked.

This year, the FAFSA has some socially telling updates. There is now an informational graphic called “Who’s My Parent,” which leads students with complex blended families through what is essentially a flowchart to figure out whose tax return counts for their FAFSA.

Students who have ever been in foster care have updated links to potential aid this year. Other sections address students with parents in a same-sex marriage, students who are homeless and independent status for students without parents in the picture.

California’s deadline for the FAFSA is March 2 for most state aid programs, but it’s better to know sooner what financial help you can expect. When it asks which colleges to send the FAFSA results to, put a state school choice (if applying to a CSU or UC) first. Apparently, that triggers the state aid checker.

Financial aid or loans will be essential for the vast majority of families footing the cost of college. Nationwide, the average sticker price of four years of university education is nearing $100,000. Thanks to scholarships, most do not pay that total. Middle-class families can qualify for help, depending on income, number of children in college and other factors.

About 60 percent of all college students are getting some form of financial aid, according to Money magazine. Many students have loans paired with their financial aid, or cobble together loans from different programs to cover their costs.

The University of California system, including UC Merced, charged $13,300 in tuition this year. The California State University system, including Stanislaus State in Turlock, cost $5,472 for a year’s worth of classes. On top of that, figure ballpark numbers of $1,500 for books and materials, and an additional $15,000 if living away from home.

All of the above information is available online and completely free. High schools all have counselors trained to help as well. Those who are the first generation of their family to try for college have extra support available. Students at Modesto Junior College or Columbia College will find lots of help in planning their transfer to a four-year institution.

Check out these (also free) sites to start your own education:

Financial Aid 101 is offered by the College Board at its BigFuture.collegeboard.org site. The College Board is a nonprofit that offers the SAT precollege test and Advanced Placement course tests. The tests have a cost, but the website offers a wealth of information for free.

The Federal Student Aid office of the U.S. Department of Education, at https://studentaid.ed.gov, has information about college and its costs laid out in easy-to-study format.

For information on loan rates, and ways to figure out the best plan to repay loans, head to www.studentloans.gov. There are two income-linked repayment options that help grads starting out in the fiscal slow lane.

Money’s Best Colleges, at www.time.com/money, ranks the institutions by affordability, best value and ease of entry, laying out how it ranked colleges. The last entry may be the most enlightening of all, giving you ways to make your own judgments.

The Education Writers Association and several news outlets offer Tuition Tracker, at www.tuitiontracker.org, to find out what students at different income levels are paying.

For example, at Stanislaus State, 76 percent of the campus’s 1,082 incoming freshmen in 2012-13 received federal financial aid, averaging a grant of $10,006, according to Tuition Tracker. That is money they can subtract forever from the sticker price of a year at the university, which is $17,161 (including living costs), according to the website.

A little more than a third of the freshmen had a student loan, averaging $4,838, which over four years adds up to less than the cost of a new car.

Breaking down what different income groups paid, the largest group of freshmen, 340 students, reported making $30,000 or less on their FAFSA, and had actual costs averaging $4,711. Grants paid the rest. Those in the next group, with up to $48,000 in income, averaged $5,920 out of pocket. Those making up to $75,000 paid an average of $9,415. Those earning up to $110,000 paid an average of $15,000, and the 54 students from families making more paid nearly the full price.

Despite horror stories about college costs skyrocketing and overwhelming student debt, those who are determined and organized can make it happen. For us, eating on the cheap and sweating car repairs came with the territory, and my extended family has learned to expect homemade jam for Christmas.

But as investments go, this one has had the best payoff around. Now, off to organize my taxes – groan – and update the FAFSA.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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