The good news for college students and their parents is that there are more avenues available for funding a college education than many might think.
About 89% of college students in Mississippi receive some type of financial aid. The Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), recognizing how important it is to leave no stone unturned when providing access to a college education, has been holding a series of seminars across the state to educate the public about the ins and outs of paying for college.
Glen East of Gulfport, who attended a recent college financial aid seminar at Southern Miss-Gulf Coast, came away with some valuable tips.
“I was most impressed with the Internet availability and knowledge that was given out about scholarship information online,” said East, who has a daughter in high school. “I was pretty familiar with some of the state programs, but not all of them. They opened my eyes to several of the state programs.”
It is important to meet deadlines for applying for financial aid.
“They really stressed the timeline for getting each of these projects done,” East said. “That was very valuable. Starting early is better than starting late.”
Should parents be involved in helping children search out all the different avenues for scholarship applications and other types of financial aid? East thinks so.
“College planning is a family issue,” he said.
Rose Bremenkamp, director of financial aid at Southern Miss-Gulf Coast, said parents might see the big picture that students won’t necessarily think about. Students might think a scholarship for tuition is all they need, not thinking about expenses for a dorm room, meal tickets and personal supplies.
“They don’t think about the whole living budget,” Bremenkamp said. “I think more parents are getting involved to help find funding for their child’s education.”
Rep. Diane Peranich of Pass Christian, vice chairperson of the IHL appropriations committee in the Mississippi House of Representatives, said most people don’t know about all the different avenues for funding a college education.
“Most people are aware of funding through the federal government based on needs, but they are not aware there is funding for middle-income people and students who have grade point averages under 3.0,” Peranich said. “The main point we would like to get across is there is money out there available for students regardless of their socio-economic situation. An untapped resource is the grants and money available from each university.”
There is broad awareness of the importance of a college education. But being aware of the importance and understanding that financial aid programs can make it available are two different things, Peranich said.
“I didn’t know what was there,” Peranich said. “When my children went to school, I knew none of this. And it is easy to apply electronically from your own home, or if you don’t have a computer in your home, you can certainly go to the public library. But there are certain steps and deadlines you must meet.”
Students are encouraged to start looking at scholarship availability in their junior year of high school because some deadlines for scholarships are set as early as September of the senior year.
“We want them to start as juniors so they will not miss out on those opportunities once their senior year begins,” said Rebecca Coco, coordinator of outreach services, Education Services Foundation (ESF), a non-profit group based in Jackson that is a resource for free college planning, scholarships, low-cost student loans and student loan consolidation. “Don’t wait until the last minute to apply for admission to college because colleges will not award a student a financial aid package until the student has been admitted. Students don’t want to miss out on those financial aid opportunities because they have not yet been admitted to the school.”
Coco recommends applying for federal student aid as soon as possible after January 1 of the senior year.
“The early bird catches the worm with financial aid,” Coco said. “Beginning the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application soon after January 1 of the senior year provides better opportunities for certain financial aid programs.”
Federal student aid and some other types of aid programs are based on “first come, first serve” basis. Late applicants can miss out.
The Web site for the FAFSA application is www.fafsa.ed.gov. Other useful Internet resources for learning about and applying for financial aid include ESF at www.esfweb.com, the U.S. Department of Education at www.ed.gov/finaid.html and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators www.nasfaa.org/AnnualPubs/cashforcollege.pdf. Web sites to search for scholarships include www.srnexpress.com, www.fastweb.com and www.freschinfo.com. The Web site for the State Office of Financial Aid is www.mississippiuniversities.com. Click on the financial aid link on the left side of the page.
When applying for financial aid, it is important to keep good records, recommends Mary Jane Covington, interim director of State Student Financial Aid.
“Get a file folder and be sure to make copies of everything that you submit,” Covington said. “Create a file folder for every institution the student and parents have contacted. That way if there is ever a question or they didn’t receive an application, the student has a copy of what they submitted.”
She said when calling about scholarships be sure to write down the name and number of the person you speak to. And make sure to respond promptly to all requests because failure to do so could mean missed scholarship opportunities.
Students also need to be aware that their grades and enrollment status have a direct impact on financial aid. Falling below a certain grade point average or failing to maintain enough hours to be a full-time student can mean the loss of financial aid.
Another recommendation from Covington is to look at the various types of scholarships available at each university, and see if you have a talent such as playing an instrument or an athletic skill that might match the college’s needs.
Another important consideration for college financial planning is the college savings plan offered by the State of Mississippi. Mississippi has two such plans known by their acronyms: MPACT (the Prepaid Plan) and MACS (the Savings Plan).
“MPACT, which started in 1997, allows the owner to purchase a prepaid tuition contract today that will cover future college expenses,” said Michael Denny, a staff accountant who specializes in personal financial planning at Grantham Poole CPA, PLLC, Jackson. “The owner elects to pay a pre-determined monthly, quarterly, annual or lump-sum amount based on the child’s age to essentially “lock-in” payment of future tuition and mandatory fees, not covering such expenses as books, room and board and other optional fees. If the owner, or purchaser, pays the amount of the contract, then the state guarantees the payment of future tuition for the beneficiary at any Mississippi state-sponsored school to which the beneficiary is admitted.”
Denny said if the beneficiary opts for an out-of-state or private school, then MPACT agrees to pay up to, but not in excess of, the average tuition and mandatory fees at public universities or public community or junior colleges in Mississippi. If the student is fortunate enough to get a scholarship, the program agrees to give a refund of principal, plus interest, at a rate equivalent to a bank savings account, which is determined by the board on an annual basis. This program can generally be funded between September 1 and November 30 each year for children over the age of one.
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