If so, you're not alone. According to The College Board, the annual cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities averaged more than $5,400 for the 2005-2006 academic year - a 7.1 percent rise from last year. If you're son or daughter is hoping to attend a private four-year college you'll pay an average of over $21,000, nearly 6 percent higher than last year. Even if you started saving years ago, you're probably going to need some assistance in the form of scholarships, grants and loans.
If that's the case, don't panic. While college costs have risen significantly during the past 10 years, the total amount of student aid available, including grants, loans, work-study programs and tax benefits has doubled. What's important is that you chart a course to obtain as much support as possible for the journey ahead. Here are some tips.
Step One: Talk with school counselors. Advising students on financial aid options is one of the most important roles of school counselors. They can tell you about the different types of aid available and guide you through the application process, which can be daunting. You can also find helpful information by visiting the Web site for the National Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA) at www.nrccua.org.
Step Two: Make sure you're eligible. To qualify for financial aid, your child must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen. If your son would like to receive federal aid, he'll need to register with the U.S. Selective Service when he turns 18 (Selective Service registration is in fact required for all men aged 18 to 25). All students must also graduate from high school or earn a GED before receiving aid.
Step Three: Order the FAFSA. Most of the available aid comes from the federal government, and to access it you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You'll use the information from your tax returns to complete the FAFSA, which you can submit by mail or online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA site is a good source of information about all of the federal aid available, and it includes a link to the financial aid offices for most states as well.
Step Four: Understand the full range of federal aid options available. Grant options include The Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, which are offered to students from families in the lowest income brackets. Loan options include the Federal Stafford Loan, which has a variable interest rate, capped at 8.25 percent, and the Federal Perkins Loan, which has the lowest fixed rate of any federal student loans. You can also consider Federal Work-Study programs, which provide jobs that pay minimum wage or above.
If you show significant financial need, you might also qualify for a Subsidized Stafford Loan, which does not start accruing interest until after you graduate from college, saving you a considerable sum. If you don't show enough need, you may be eligible for an Unsubsidized Stafford Loan, which isn't based on need. Unsubsidized loans begin accruing interest when you sign on the bottom line, although interest rates on student loans are generally very low.
Step Five: Take stock of the additional options available. Many scholarships are based on academic merit, but others - from businesses, civic and religious groups and corporate and financial organizations - are awarded based on family income or demographic factors. School counselors can also advise you on grants and loans from your state government, and those offered by the colleges and universities you're considering.
Step Six: Develop a plan. The wide range of options and application deadlines might make you feel as if you're stuck in a maze, but it will be easier to navigate your way through if you begin early. While no aid will be awarded until your child is accepted into a higher education institution or program, you should start learning about your options as early as the middle school years or even before. Make a checklist of every type of grant and loan aid available. Itemize all of the forms and documentation you'll need, and create a calendar of deadlines for applying.
Step Seven: Focus on high achievement. Many loans and grants are increasingly based more on academic merit than financial need. This is one more reason your child should develop good study skills and get extra help to address any issues that are impacting grades. It's also important for your son or daughter to do everything possible to prepare for the SAT and ACT - two high stakes exams that have a big impact on college admissions. Top performance on these tests can also lead to significant opportunities for scholarship money.
Your child should also raise the bar as high as possible by taking Advanced Placement, honors or other advanced courses. Doing well in these courses is especially crucial if your child is hoping to receive aid from colleges and universities because it shows decision-makers that he or she is well-qualified for college-level work - and well positioned to ensure the institution's financial investment pays off.
You'll also want to remember the power of the financial investment you're making. As noted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) college graduates earn an average of $49,000 each year, compared to high school graduates, who earn roughly $30,000. This amounts to a difference of more than $800,000 (in today's dollars) throughout your son or daughter's professional life - further proof that now, and in the future, the path to high achievement leads to rich rewards.