By Lisa Shrewsberry
The Register Herald
BECKLEY -- For hundreds of graduating seniors, the countdown for heading to college this fall has already begun. Rugs, coordinating curtains, ample supply of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and laundry basket aside, if parents are just now beginning to plan for how they'll pay for college, they may be too late for outside assistance. Loans, work-study programs, weekend and summer employment -- all are self-help options still in play.
According to Shawn Schuyler, director of College Planning with Bill Kinder and Associates, most seniors are getting their financial aid award letters back now from their completed and submitted FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
When affording college is the topic, it's a matter of the early bird getting the worm -- on all fronts -- advice that can certainly help this year's high school juniors and earlier grades with sights set on higher education.
"When filing a FAFSA, parents should start the first day in January of the year their student will attend college. They will be first in line for financial aid decisions from the colleges at that point."
According to Schuyler, the college really makes the bulk of the decision as to who gets what in available aid. "So if you are early in line, there's a much bigger pool of aid available for the financial aid office to distribute."
For current juniors, Schuyler suggests, before parents complete the FAFSA next year, they have time now to consult their child's school guidance counselor for available aid and for performance and field-related scholarships available. Making an appointment to see a financial adviser with experience in doing college planning to discuss strategies concerning parental assets is also a good idea.
"If parents have a sizable CD [certificate of deposit], for instance, it will be counted as money they are expected to spend toward college when their aid calculations are made."
Speaking with a college planner at least a year out will give parents time to review assets, their intentions for the assets and alternative vehicles for keeping them out of the financial aid calculation.
"Funding retirement is really the same problem as funding college -- there's only one pool to reach into for both." Sound financial advice can help couples plan for both retirement and college for the kids. "Planning could be done in such a way as to create money for college and an income stream for you at retirement age."
Not only is there a single pool of money to fund both objectives, but the pool is getting more and more shallow. Funding an education, according to Schuyler, beats the heck out of an increase in the cost of milk, bread and gasoline.
"It's like inflation on steroids. Tuition and fees for public four-year universities have outpaced inflation by approximately 70 percent over the last 20 years. There's nothing else that costs an inflation-adjusted 70 percent more than it did 20 years ago."
And if parents are counting on scholarships and grants to get their children through, that pool is also receding.
"Only 3 percent of aid you don't have to pay back, free aid, comes from private sector scholarships. The rest comes directly from the colleges."