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Students and their parents who begin their search for college financial aid information as soon as possible will have a better idea of what aid they are eligible to receive and how they may obtain it.

This includes scholarships for college, student loans, grants, fellowships and even federal work study. In fact, students and parents who start early have more access to free financial aid than students who wait until the last minute to apply.

Female College Student Poses in Undergrad Library


In this section, we present introductory information on different types of colleges and admission policies, how to set up long-term financing plans, and other financial planning tips. We recommend you and your parents sit down together and read this chapter closely. Then discuss any questions you may have with each other.

College Prep Guide

Glossary of Terms

Accreditation: process by which a school demonstrates that its programs meet a certain set of academic and educational standards as determined by a regional or national accrediting association

American College Testing Program (ACT): one of two standard college entrance examinations; the other is the SAT test

Pre-Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT): taken during junior year of high school; a preparation for the SAT and a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship

Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT): one of two standard college entrance examinations; the other is the ACT test The benefits of graduating from high school and going on to receive a post-secondary degree are numerous.

A person who attends college generally earns more than a person who does not. Recent income predictions show that a worker with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn an average of $20,500 more a year over his or her lifetime than someone with a high school diploma. Those who received a two-year degree also increased their earning potential by $8,000 a year over those without a degree. In addition, a majority of today’s companies depend on new technology. Keeping up with technological changes is often associated with earning a post-secondary degree. With a college education, a person qualifies for many more job opportunities as well and has a better chance of climbing the corporate ladder.

Not every graduating high school senior needs to immediately enroll in an ivy-league university to reap the benefits of college, however. There are a whole range of higher education institutions in the United States such as trade schools, community colleges, state universities, and private colleges that can meet a variety of financial and academic needs.

Types of Post-Secondary Schools

Post-secondary schools generally fall into two main categories: community/technical colleges and four-year colleges/universities. Schools that offer bachelor of science (B.S.) or bachelor of arts (B.A.) degrees in areas of arts and sciences, such as English, foreign languages, history, economics, political science, biology, chemistry, computer sciences, and many other fields, are termed colleges and universities. Such degree programs generally take at least four years of attendance before the student will have completed all the necessary classes.

Community/technical colleges and trade schools, on the other hand, offer education and training programs that are two years in length or shorter. Their programs often lead to an associate of arts (A.A.) degree, an associate of science (A.S.) degree, a license, or a certificate. Community colleges are quite common throughout the United States. As public institutions supported by state and local tax revenues, they mostly serve people from surrounding communities. Many people find that attending a community college for a couple of semesters to take basic college courses, such as freshman English and math classes, is a good way to shave money off their total educational bill. Community colleges typically charge much less per credit hour than four-year colleges and universities. And most classes taken at a community college will transfer to other schools, though it’s a good idea to check with your intended four-year college about transfer credits so you can better select the right courses.

Technical colleges and trade schools have an emphasis on technical/occupational training programs, often in cooperation with local businesses, public service agencies, and other organizations. For example, many automotive, dental, and medical laboratory technicians receive their training from such schools. Some training programs are connected to educational programs that begin in high school.


TIP…Increasingly, colleges and universities are offering three-year degree options. Over 175 accredited schools have three-year tracks in various fields of study. The savings can be substantial over traditional four-year degrees – as much as $20,000, including room and board costs.

Both community/technical colleges and four-year universities and colleges make available financial aid resources to students who need it. Some people mistakenly think it’s only the big, nationally recognized universities that have federal financial aid programs. They believe they must attend some place like Michigan State or Duke University to qualify for a student loan or grant. In reality, students are eligible to receive federal financial aid to attend any “accredited” university, four-year college, trade school, or community college. How does a school receive accreditation? Basically it means that the school has met a certain set of academic and educational standards as determined by a regional or national accrediting association. The federal government insists upon accreditation so that it can be assured that the school is legitimate and is providing a certain level of service and expertise to its students. Nearly all post-secondary schools in the United States are accredited.

TIP…You can cut college costs by either scoring well on the advanced placement exams or by taking basic classes at a community college. State universities mainly charge by credit hour, so if you can take even one transferable course, or place out of a course with a high AP score, you can save $600 or more.

If you are in doubt as to a school’s accreditation, be sure to inquire with the admissions office. And remember, if you don’t believe a school is good, regardless whether it has received accreditation or not, don’t bother attending. College is a huge commitment. It does not make sense to spend time and money at a place that does not meet your basic needs.

Admissions Policies

Two-year colleges often operate under what is called an “open admissions” policy, which means anyone who has a high school diploma or GED certificate can attend. They do not screen applicants in the same way that four-year universities and colleges do. The open admissions policy allows anyone, regardless of high school grades, the opportunity to attend college. Another benefit is there is really no waiting to find out if you’ve been accepted or not. Applying is an informal process of submitting an application to the admissions office and later registering and paying for classes. Most four-year colleges and universities are more selective in their application requirements. They accept students based on several factors, including high school GPA, test scores, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and the content of the application essay.

In evaluating each candidate, schools typically place the most emphasis on an applicant’s high school transcript, which not only gives that student’s GPA but also lists the classes he or she took in high school. For that reason, it’s important not only to maintain good grades in high school but take challenging courses in academic subjects. Admission essays are also important, especially at highly competitive schools, where the majority of people who are applying have extremely high GPAs and test scores. Sometimes the only distinguishing factor between candidates is their admission essay. When writing your essay, you should remember several tips:

  • Give yourself enough time so that you can write your essay in stages
  • Before you begin your essay, read the question and take time to reflect on what you are being asked
  • Make a list of your achievements and activities from the beginning of high school to the present
  • Make an outline of your essay, taking into consideration what you are being asked and what you have accomplished in high school
  • When writing your essay, try to be as original as possible without being gimmicky or dishonest
  • Spend some time away from the essay and then return with a fresh perspective to look for typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. Give the essay to several family members and friends to proofread. The more eyes that look at the essay, the less likely there will be mistakes
  • If you are an applicant with relevant job experience, attach a current resume to the application essay

One thing that should not be used as a basis for determining an applicant’s admission to a particular school is his or her need for financial aid. All colleges and universities must adhere to a need-blind admissions policy if they are receiving Title IV federal government funds. That means an application for financial aid will have no bearing on the decision of the admissions committee to accept or reject an applicant. Almost all colleges and universities, even the most prestigious and highly selective, encourage qualified people to apply regardless of financial resources.

Where to Look for Aid

TIP…Many four-year colleges and universities prefer to admit students who have taken courses in certain subject areas. High school students looking to enroll at the most selective colleges should have at least taken geometry and trigonometry, rather than only general math and algebra classes. In addition, be sure to brush up on your foreign language skills. Some colleges now prefer three or four years of foreign language study.

As you now know, financial aid is widely available. The majority of students, however, reduce the amount of aid they’re eligible to receive by not searching enough, or by looking in the wrong places. Here are a few places you want to be sure to look:

  • High school guidance counselors and career centers
  • State agencies for higher education
  • Colleges or universities you are interested in attending
  • The library
  • Your parents’ companies or organizations
  • National and local foundations, such as 4-H, Rotary, YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, Women’s Auxiliary, American Legion, etc.
  • U.S. Armed Forces veteran’s benefits (if one or both of your parents is a veteran)
  • Occupational interests
  • The Internet and various online programs

The best way to maximize your chances for aid is to keep yourself open to everything. Your eligibility to receive grants, scholarships, and college admission is influenced in part by your activities, involvement, and academic achievement during high school. To increase your eligibility, you need to:

  • Keep up your grades
  • Become familiar with all types of financial aid available
  • Learn how to receive aid from all sources (federal, state, and private scholarship funds)
  • Estimate the entire cost of an under graduate education
  • Determine the amount of money you need to contribute to your education
  • Construct and follow a detailed financial aid plan
  • Increase your eligibility for aid from all sources by maintaining good grades, becoming involved with extracurricular activities, working part-time and/or volunteering for community service
  • Take the PSAT/NMSQT; this test qualifies you for National Merit Scholarship consideration, through which over 30 million dollars is awarded annually
  • In your senior year, prepare for and take the SAT and/or ACT

Participation in any of these activities will increase your eligibility for scholarships, grants, and loans.

Special Scholarship Programs for High School Seniors

If you qualify, these scholarships can provide you with up to $5,000 per year for college. Ask your high school counselor for more information on these programs.

Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship

Students who demonstrate outstanding academic excellence and leadership skills are eligible to receive this award. Approximately ten or more are given per state annually. Scholarship amounts are usually $1,500 per year for four years of post-secondary education. For more information on this particular scholarship visit the US Department of Education at: http://www.ed.gov/programs/iduesbyrd/index.html

TIP…Beginning your freshman year in high school, start a running list of your activities, including sports, community activities, and any awards you may have received. Also include your job experience and a list of adults who can write letters of recommendation for your college admission and scholarship applications. This approach is much easier than having to recall everything you’ve done during the past three years.

National Merit Scholarship (NMS)

All high school students planning to continue their education should take the PSAT during their junior year. This test not only prepares you for the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), it also qualifies you for National Merit Scholar status. Becoming a National Merit Scholar can also provide financial assistance for college. One-time awards of $2,000 are given annually to approximately 2,000 students, totaling $4 million in awards. For more information visit http://www.nationalmerit.org/

A Guidance Counselor’s Advice: Be in the Know Before You Go

Skip Duke is a guidance counselor at Olympic High School in Silverdale, Washington. He took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk with us about preparing high school students (and their parents!) for college.

What is the ideal timeline for preparing and submitting college admission applications?
We start coaching students on preparing for college in their sophomore year, getting them thinking about where they would like to go and what they would like to study. This is also when we invite college representatives and financial aid experts to come in for a classroom visit. We strongly encourage juniors to take all the necessary tests, the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT. Then, we try to have our college-bound seniors have all their application materials completed and sent out by Christmas break. Every school has its own application deadlines and requirements, but a general rule of thumb is to submit earlier rather than later.

How significant are the ACT and SAT test scores in getting into college? A student’s cumulative grades are really what must be good. Most colleges follow a formula in which two-thirds of their entrance requirements or weight of their decision rests with a student’s GPA and only one-third of the decision is weighed by the student’s test results.

When should a student start applying for financial aid? Scholarships are generally available throughout the school year. Many have rolling deadlines. We post all scholarship information we get and encourage students to explore each and every opportunity that they are eligible for. All college-bound seniors should start investigating scholarships and grants as soon as possible. Those who really know how to dig and work for scholarship money are the ones who usually will reap the most benefits.

For federal financial aid, the applications are not available until after January 1 for the following school year. We also tell students to be sure to contact each school they have been accepted at and inquire about campus-based scholarships and grants. Almost all colleges and universities have their own private funds they make available to students enrolled at their schools. Students should be looking into those sources for financial aid as well as national scholarships, grants, and loans.

What are some of the best things a student can do to better his or her chances of getting into a prestigious or competitive college? Challenge yourself! If a student wants to go to a high-powered college or university, he or she should be taking high-powered courses in high school. Most high schools have advanced placement courses and offer classes that are more difficult than others. Don’t take the easy way out – competitive colleges are looking for students who have tackled tough courses in high school. Take advantage of everything that is offered at your particular high school to ready yourself for college courses.

Another important aspect is for a student to be a well-rounded individual with many different interests. Colleges are paying more and more attention to a student’s involvement with community service, too. I tell students to volunteer, and for a couple of different organizations. Don’t channel all your energy into one thing – it’s good to be interested in many different things. At our high school we encourage our college-bound students to develop a portfolio beginning in their sophomore year. Students should be getting letters of recommendation from teachers, keeping track of their work history, volunteer activities, any awards they have won, even exceptional papers they have written.

What do you recommend that parents do to help manage college costs? Get professional help. As a parent myself with two children who were in college at the same time, I can tell you it can be very confusing and stressful figuring out how to manage escalating college costs. We went to a professional financial adviser who looked at our entire financial picture and gave us a direction in which to go. He recommended ways for us to manage our money to make the most of our assets and still not go totally in debt putting our kids through college. My recommendation is for parents to seriously consider getting professional help in managing their money. It worked for us.

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