CEPEDA: College aid as a family affair

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- February was Freak Out Month, errr, I mean, FAFSA Month. But, hey, same thing. And March is hardly better.

If the mere mention of FAFSA -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which most colleges and universities use as the universal form for determining financial aid eligibility for grants and loans -- doesn't strike fear in your heart, then you probably aren't staring down the possibility of not being able to afford to send your son or daughter to college this fall.

Even worse off than those who are already struggling to gather all the financial documents necessary to complete the lengthy application are the parents who are nursing the hope of landing scholarships, grants and student loans but have yet to hear about the FAFSA process.

Sorry, Illinoisans, the "priority deadline" -- the cutoff to qualify for state-based college aid -- was March 1. And funds were so limited that the state asked families to file "as soon as possible after Jan. 1, 2013" -- a hefty request when tax forms didn't even arrive until the end of that month.

Take heart, Texans, your budding scholars have until Friday to meet their priority deadline and Mississippians until March 31.

As for everyone else whose students are deep into considering prospective campuses and majors, it's time to have some serious heart-to-heart conversations about how to pay for college.

And the No. 1 thing families need to know about applying for college financial aid is that it involves a ton of hard work.

First, the only way to triumph over the nightmare stories of students who graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt -- or worse, drop out before earning a credential but still owing on loans -- is to step out of your comfort zone and talk frankly about your child's hopeful expectations and the real-world limitations of parental help.

Probably the most shocking statistic I've heard about our country's trillion-dollar student-loan debt crisis is that Americans 60 and older are among the hardest hit.

Last spring, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that this demographic owes about $36 billion in student loans with about 10 percent of those loans delinquent.

Every parent wants to help their child through college but, as much smarter financial minds than mine have noted, it isn't wise to sign or co-sign your life away on someone else's education loan, even if that someone else is your baby. Plus, it might not be the best choice.

Research by Laura Hamilton, a sociology professor at University of California, found that while the common perception is that the more a family contributes to college costs, the more time students have to focus on studies, this may not be true. She reported that though students whose parents picked up most of the tab were likelier to graduate, their grade-point averages were lower than those of their peers, possibly because they had such a small stake in the financial aspects of their educations.

And then we have the question about whether a student should work while attending college. Over the past few years, there has been tension between those who are proud to have worked their way through and others who fear it puts students -- especially minority and first-time college students -- at risk of not performing well in school.

It's definitely a legitimate concern, especially if you're talking about students who haven't proved themselves to be high academic achievers. Yet, the American Psychological Association recently reported that African-American and Hispanic high school students who work long hours while attending school have more stable grades compared to whites and Asian-Americans working the same hours.

These studies shouldn't absolve parents from fretting about how college and its costs could make or break their child's future. But the tidbits could fuel the much-needed preparation and soul-searching required to confront some of the very real consequences of how to finance a family's college dreams.

Navigating these emotionally thorny issues is terribly hard work, but also the perfect precursor to the sometimes mind-boggling labor of applying for student aid. My husband and I already have our own student loans to pay off, and now we're planning on how to pay for college for our two sons. Believe me, it's a nightmare.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.


kevin 2 years, 6 months ago

College is possible if you would explain to folks in this column how to do it instead of complaining. First, let me start by saying many folks are very poor and are struggling and it is difficult for them. Many private schools let your kids in for a lower price or free. However, for those that have at least one wage earner or possibly two, it is not that hard. You can even send your kids to a private or Catholic high school. They might even learn something about God. Gee, wouldn't that be new! You get your kids to work part-time and let their efforts get credited against the tuition. Private schools are worth the effort vs. government funded public schools, with a few exceptions. Parents in the meantime must start putting funds aside early, which is not impossible if you live within your means (most don't want to). This high school savings will carry over to college savings. The money you "put aside" in high school will go towards your college tuition+ what you put aside from your paycheck(s). Ever think about living with one less car? It is possible. Ever hear of living with a car longer than 4 yrs? Yes it is possible. The consumption craze of let my kids have everything they want, not what they need, is the problem. And this goes for the parents as well. Go to schools in your state.

Do your kids a favor, if you are caring parents. You can find ways to pay for it without government help.


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