Shortly after the birth of her first child five years ago, Christine Chapman and her husband met with their financial planner to discuss saving for their daughter's education. "We live in Massachusetts," says Chapman, "and he told us that just for one little one, we needed to save the equivalent of $273,000 over the next 18 years to pay for college. Our mouths opened in absolute shock. I looked at my husband and was like, 'How the hell are we going to do that?' We're not going to be able to do that. And now we have two [kids]!"
Chapman, an educational consultant with both Starr and Chapman and Aristotle Circle, is an expert on securing scholarship money for college. With the new school year right around the corner -- or already here, depending on where you live -- now's a good time to get her advice on how best to finance your child's education.
1. Start Your Scholarship Search Early. For parents who know that they will need substantial financial aid, Chapman suggests beginning the hunt "as early as seventh grade or ninth grade. It becomes a potential family research project if you start that early," and gives you the necessary time both to familiarize yourself with the process of identifying and applying for money, and actually securing the funds.
2. Involve Your Child in the Process. "As soon as your kid starts babysitting or has a part-time job or starts to understand the value of money, it's really important to talk to them about how much a college education is going to cost," says Chapman. "Too few kids understand how much it is going to cost until senior year, when there are 5 offers on the table and their number one school isn't even an option because the family can't afford it. Talking about it early saves families a lot of heart ache and in the end offers the student the opportunity to take control of their future much earlier in their lives."
3. Apply for as Many Scholarships as Is Humanly Possible. "The reality is that often times, millions and millions of dollars in scholarship money goes uncollected, which is unbelievable given the cost of college," says Chapman. If you're new to the scholarship search, you can start your hunt at Sallie Mae (SLM), a publicly-traded company that offers student loans. Other sites that offer searchable scholarship databases include collegeanswer.com, fastweb.com, scholarships4students.com, and collegeboard.org, which also has free calculators you can access without completing a formal application.
You can also expand beyond the traditional scholarship search, as there is money out there for almost anything you can imagine. Some wacky scholarships include the "Stuck at Prom Contest," which awards $10,000 in scholarship money to the high school couple who produces the best prom outfits from duct tape, the Patrick Kerr Skateboard Scholarship for skateboarders who have been positively influenced by the sport, the Tall Club International Scholarship for women who are at least 5 feet 10 inches and men who are at least 6 feet 2 inches, and the Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest, which awards $2,000 in scholarship money to the graduating high school senior with the best duck call. While smaller, quirkier scholarships like these are unlikely to cover the whole cost of college, every bit helps.
4. Consider Starting at a Community College and Then Transferring. "Don't stick your nose up at the idea of community college," advises Chapman, who believes these schools can be a means to an end. "The credits can easily transfer to another school...The students will show good ability in tackling college coursework, and that's what schools look at on a transfer level. For transfer kids, their performance at community college will be much more important than how they did on the SAT as a senior."
Another excellent aspect of community colleges that is often overlooked is their long tradition of hands-on education, with smaller classes, even at the freshman level. And community colleges are significantly less expensive: Chapman estimates the cost of a year at a community college to be between a quarter and a third of the price of the same education at a university.
5. Don't Be Afraid of the "Gap Year." More and more students are choosing to take a year off between high school and college. In some instances, the student has been admitted to college and is deferring acceptance for a year. In other instances, the student hasn't yet been accepted to a college. Regardless, Chapman believes a year off -- though certainly not at all necessary -- can help some students to better understand what it is they want out of their education, in turn making the investment in it that much more likely to produce good results.
"At the end of a gap year, if done right, the student is much more apt to know where he or she is going, the value of hard work, the contributions he or she can make to the world and their own community. It's a great way for the student to say, 'OK, am I actually going to the school I planned to go to or have I grown wings in another direction? Have I decided that the $60,000 [in tuition] doesn't make sense for me or my family and I want to save that money and go to my local state schools?' It's an opportunity for a testing ground, to think about what it means to attend that kind of institution whatever kind it is going to be, both in terms of cost and how it positions them to achieve their goals later on."
For students considering a gap year, Chapman emphasizes the importance of planning out the time. "I'm a big proponent, as long as there's an agreement [with the parents] that there's a plan, that the plan needs to be stuck to, and that it will produce something at the end of the year that is a source of reflection," whether its a presentation, a slide show, a movie, or a book. Under those conditions, Chapman believes that a year off "leads to true maturity and growth and reflection." But without a plan, "students can often end up completely without a future direction, inspiration or clue as to what comes next."
Though there are numerous, high-end programs that offer a structured gap year, Chapman asserts that a year off doesn't have to be an expensive undertaking. Instead, parents can work with their children to identify objectives and craft a program independently.
6. Consider Meeting with a Counselor. Chapman knows that many Americans consider an educational consultant a luxury they can't afford. But she believes strongly that counseling doesn't have to break the bank. A family can undertake their own scholarship search and still meet yearly with a consultant for an hour or two to reassess their plan, determine next steps, and identify resources that may otherwise be overlooked.
"I would strongly suggest that the family see if they can get a free 20-minute intake interview with the consultant to see if there's a fit," advises Chapman. "We work on an hourly basis, so the reality is that an hour of one of these expert's time is potentially five to six hours of your time at home because we know where to look, which ones are good, which ones are bad. But for those who want to do it on their own, the reality is it's doable. Many people have done it."
Loren Berlin is a reporter with the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @LorenBerlin, and on Facebook.
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