JENKINS: Knowledge of financial aid is key to affording college

Want to go to college but don't think you can afford it? Think again, suggest several local experts.

"You can absolutely afford college, as long as you make smart decisions about money," said Jared Smith, director of financial aid at Georgia Gwinnett College. "You might not be able to go to your No. 1 school, but there are plenty of affordable options for you to get a degree."

Unfortunately, many students who would like to go to college are not aware of their options when it comes to financial aid. According to Georgia Perimeter College president Anthony Tricoli, "Studies have confirmed that otherwise capable students often pass on college because they believe a college education is financially out of reach."

Sadly, he notes, "students with the greatest need are often the least likely to receive it due to a simple lack of communication. Financial aid knowledge is perhaps the largest missing link and may be the greatest obstacle in gaining access to college for a growing number of students."

The place to start, advises Carole Jones, Outreach Manager for GPC's Student Financial Services, is by filling out a free application for federal student aid. The form is available online at the Department of Education's website at www2.ed.gov.

"Once students complete the FAFSA," she said, "we're able to see if they meet the eligibility requirements for various federal student aid programs." Among those are the Pell Grant, which provides up to $5,500 a year for qualifying students, and student loans.

Smith notes that there are two types of student loans: subsidized, which are need-based and don't accrue interest while the student remains in college (or, rather, the government pays the interest); and unsubsidized, which are not need-based and do accrue interest even while the student attends school.

"I try to encourage students to borrow as little as possible," Smith said, "but sometimes there's no other way."

Instead, he joins Jones in recommending that students start by filling out a FAFSA to see what they can qualify for in direct aid. He also points out that even relatively affluent applicants shouldn't assume they won't qualify for Pell.

"It's true that Pell is designed for low-income families," he says. "However, the formula is quite complex. It would be possible for a family of six with four kids in college making $100,000 a year to qualify because they have four kids in college."

Both he and Jones agree with Tricoli that disseminating information is key. In that spirit, GPC has launched a Financial Outreach Program designed "to provide financial aid information to as many schools, organizations, places of worship, and agencies as possible."

"It doesn't matter to us where the student intends to attend college," says Tricoli. "We're happy to assist any and all students with their financial aid questions." Interested groups or individuals can email the Outreach Program at sfsoutreach@gpc.edu.

Rob Jenkins is a local writer and professor at Georgia Perimeter College. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.