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    What you need to know before your begin your search for college money.

    by Mimi Greenwood Knight

    Our Panel of Financial Aid Experts:

    advice from school professionals about getting grants and scholarships for collegeFeel like you could use a little time in College Finance 101? You've come to the right place. We asked financial aid experts from four Christian colleges to answer the questions people ask most frequently—in language we can understand.

    Les Butler
    Director of Financial Aid at Biola University in La Mirada, California

    Kathleen Ellix-Foultz
    Executive Director of Financial Aid at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania

    Michael Epema
    Director of Financial Aid at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa

    Amy Blackwell
    Director of Financial Aid at Hannibal La-Grange University in Hannibal, Missouri

    If you've started your search for college cash, you're probably feeling like you've stumbled into a foreign language class. You've almost certainly got some questions: What exactly is a FAFSA? Should I take out loans for college? Who should I ask if I have questions about financial aid forms?
    All this financial aid talk has my head spinning. Is there someone who can walk me through it?
    Mrs. Blackwell: That's what we financial aid counselors are here for! It's our job to walk students through the financial aid maze from start to finish and calculate individual financing packages for each student.
    Mr. Butler: There are many resources available to help students. There are online budget calculators for each state, scholarship databases, and a multitude of other websites. It can be overwhelming, but the financial aid counselor at your chosen school will be your tour guide through it all. If you have a question, call and ask. Don't feel like you're being a pest. If your financial situation changes in a way that affects your ability to afford school, let us know. If you don't understand something, speak up. The more information you give us, the more we'll be able to help you.
    Where do I start looking for financial aid?
    Mrs. Blackwell: Begin at your guidance counselor's office. Let your counselor know you're interested in hearing about any and all scholarships that come across their desk. You should probably do this during your junior year. Get to know your guidance counselor—they should know you by name because they see you in their office so often!
    During your senior year, get in touch with the financial aid offices at any schools you're considering and let them know you're looking at them. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know anything about paying for college. They'll be happy to help.
    Ms. Ellix-Foultz: All roads to financial aid begin and end with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), because federal, state and institutional programs all look at your FAFSA to determine your financial need. The FAFSA is a must for any student seeking financial help to attend college. You'll also want to call the financial aid offices at the schools you're considering and ask for any additional forms that institution requires, because each school has its own forms and deadlines. Don't rule out any school you'd really like to attend because you think you can't afford it. Sometimes the schools that cost more also offer more aid. (For more information on the FAFSA, see the definition in Terms to Know, page 12.)
    When should I start looking for aid?
    Mr. Epema: You can submit the FAFSA during the winter of your senior year, as early as January 1. As for funds provided by those schools you're considering, you can contact them in the fall of your senior year to ask about any additional paperwork they might require. Fill everything out and apply as early as you can, because eventually funds run out. You'll want to know what financial aid each school is going to offer you before you decide which one you'll attend.
    Mrs. Blackwell: When you get scholarship information and deadlines from your high school guidance counselor, have them walk you through the application process. Allow yourself plenty of time to write the required letters, to hear responses, and to apply for scholarships you learn about unexpectedly. Always follow up on anything you submit to make sure it arrived at its destination.
    My grades and test scores are pretty average. Are there scholarships available for a student like me?
    Mr. Epema: Colleges compete for the best students, which usually means they're offering funds to students with high grades and test scores. But they also value talent in sports, theater, music and art. And some scholarships are based on your financial need. Others are based on volunteer service. Talk to your high school guidance counselor and financial aid counselors at the schools you're considering. Ask them about scholarships that are available to a student with your particular talents and abilities. Then take advantage of as many of those scholarship opportunities as you can.
    Ms. Ellix-Foultz: There are basically two kinds of scholarships out there—those based on achievement and those based on need. Most schools that offer institutional funds offer both types. The kind of institutional scholarships offered often depends on what that particular school is looking for. A school you're interested in may be trying to recruit students in just the field you want to pursue—and they may have set aside funds to do that. Always ask.
    Can I get my college education without going into debt?
    Mr. Epema: Most conscientious Christian parents discourage their students from taking on unreasonable debt—and that's a good thing. But the reality is that very few students come to college prepared to pay their way without having to take out some loans. Your financial aid counselor can help you borrow wisely. Here's what I do. First, I have students consider their EFC (Expected Family Contribution), and then I have them think about how much money they are likely to earn in the first few years after graduation. I also help them find out how much financial aid is available to them. With that information in hand, I can help them determine how much debt is wise for them to take on and help them think about how they'll pay it off.
    Mr. Butler: It helps to look at a solid, quality Christian education as an investment. For example, you probably couldn't buy a car without taking out a loan. Your college education is an investment that's worth far more than a car and will last a lot longer. It's true that you don't want to take on debt you won't be able to pay off, but in this day and age few parents are in a position to pay outright for their child's college education. The average, hard-working family contributes less than 10 percent of the total cost of their child's college education. The rest comes from a combination of grants, parent loans, student loans, scholarships, and anything the student can earn while in school. Still, it's important to borrow very carefully. It's better to live like a student while you're a student than to have to live that way for several years after graduation because you've taken on too much debt.
    Should I try to balance schoolwork with a part-time job?
    Mrs. Blackwell: Most Christian colleges offer extensive on-campus work programs. For example, here at Hannibal-LaGrange, 125 of our 850 students have work-study jobs. Most of them use the money they earn as spending cash, rather than for tuition. If you do work part-time, always remember that being a student is your first and most important job. With that in mind, it's probably best to limit your working hours to about 10 a week—because being a student is a 40-hour-a-week job.
    Mr. Butler: Early in your search, ask the financial aid counselors about on-campus employment opportunities. Working on campus is ideal because on-campus employers are concerned with your academic success and are likely to be flexible around your tests and assignments. If you need additional money to live on, the on-campus work-study program is probably your best bet as long as you don't let work interfere with your school performance.
    Should I pay a scholarship search program to find scholarships for me?
    Mr. Epema: I don't recommend paying someone to do something you can easily do on your own or with the free help of the financial aid office. After all, that's what we're here for. There are also websites like scholarships.com and fastweb.com. The FAFSA can be filed online for free as well.
    What if my family's income changes after all my paperwork is complete?
    Mrs. Blackwell: Let someone at your school's financial aid office know about any changes in your financial situation. Any change in a parent's income can affect the amount of money you're eligible for. Some changes can make you eligible for further assistance
    Ms. Ellix-Foultz: Whatever you do, don't struggle to keep up with tuition payments if things have changed financially. If it becomes hard for you to pay, talk to your admissions counselors. They are there to help. I've seen cases where both parents' incomes were submitted on the FAFSA. Then during the school year, one parent moved out and the remaining parent and student were left struggling to make payments. If the student had shared this with us, we would have done our best to find more financial aid for his family.
    With a decent GPA, I can attend a public university in my state for next to nothing. Why should I pay to go to a Christian college when I can go to a state school for so much less?
    Mr. Butler: You wouldn't make any investment without looking seriously at what you're buying. In the case of a college education, you'll want to look at many variables besides tuition costs and location. Plan to visit any school you're considering seriously. If possible, visit while the school is in session and sit in on some classes. Talk to students and teachers to determine the mindset of the institution. Do the students seem comfortable and happy there? What are the ethics and teachings of the Christian school and how are they different from public institutions you've visited?
    Mr. Epema: Think carefully about the factors that are most important to you in your college experience—and about how God may be speaking to you through your spiritual and financial needs. You may be able to go to a state school more cheaply. Still, you may also realize that going to a school that is more expensive is worth it because of the way it will nurture your Christian walk.