College is an investment in your future. (And I bet you've heard it a thousand times). But at least in the short term, it will probably impact your pocketbook, too. In fact, Texas graduates in 2013 averaged just over of $25,000 in debt, according to U.S. News & World Report.
That's why it's imperative to understand the financial aid process before you even apply for admission. The best way to navigate the jargon and red tape is to sit down with a university financial aid advisor. Here's what you should ask -- and what answers you're likely to get.
1. What is the FAFSA?
The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It determines your eligibility for federal assistance. If you don't file a FAFSA, you're eligible for $0. If you do, you'll likely be offered Federal Direct Student Loans, which are low-interest loans from the Department of Education. Once you get your FAFSA aid package, call your financial advisor. He or she can help you understand the bottom line.
2. How much can I borrow? (And should I?)
There is a cap for how much you can borrow from the federal government. That number is based on your status (freshman, sophomore, junior or senior) -- and even in the highest-need cases, it almost always falls short of tuition. But every penny counts. That's why most students accept federal loans and then look to banks to fill the gap. The trick is to be smart about your loans. Understand which ones accrue interest, and understand subsidized versus unsubsidized loans. Save loan money you don't use in any given semester, or don't accept more than you anticipate needing each semester. Check in with your advisor about how much you've borrowed and when you will hit your limit. Ignoring your loan debt will cause major headaches; being prepared and proactive will help you manage it effectively.
3. Am I likely to get any scholarships?
Here's the truth -- there aren't nearly as many scholarships for adult students as there are for those fresh out of high school. But they do exist. The universities you are applying to may have some. Your company might offer some. Also check with philanthropic and community groups. And do a Google search for ideas based on your skills, job experiences and cultural background -- you'll have to be diligent, but you'll be surprised what you can find.
4. How can I save money?
Consider enrolling at a community college to take classes that will count toward your degree at a four-year university. (Ask for a university's Equivalency Guide to be sure you'll get credit when you transfer.) Look into CLEP and DSST tests to earn credit. And find out about options like portfolio, where you can get credit for documented learning gained on the job or in the community. All these options are cheaper (and often faster) than a full semester of classes.
5. May I contact you again?
Yes, yes, absolutely, yes. Stay in touch with your financial aid advisor. He or she can help you understand rule changes and fine print and can let you know about scholarships that might be a good fit. And he or she will be an invaluable resource (and sounding board) throughout your college experience.
Save that email in your address book. Add the number to your contacts. And give your financial aid advisor a call when you graduate. He or she will be just as proud as you are.
Lori Eggleston Thorp is director of New College Support Services at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. She has taught and advised adult students for more than seven years and has an M.Ed. from Texas State University. Lori has also presented at the Association for Continuing Higher Education
International Conference, the Region 7 National Academic Advisors Conference and the Texas Academic Advising Network.