Parents today may find the prospect of affording a college education the biggest hurdle, but the reality may not be that bad.

 

According to the College Board, in 2011-12, public four-year colleges charged, on average, $8,244 in tuition and fees for in-state students. In 2000, the average cost was $8,000 so the price has not increased that dramatically. The average surcharge for full-time out-of-state students at these institutions was $12,526.

 

The good news is that there is an estimated $227 billion in available financial aid. Regarding state aid, during the 2009-10 academic year, there was over $8.8 billion awarded by state higher education organizations for students who attended a college within their state of residence. For a state-by-state listing of available dollars, go to http://www.fafsa.com/student-financial-aid/state-based-aid-programs.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, approximately 28 percent of full-time private nonprofit four-year college students are enrolled in institutions charging $36,000 or more yearly in tuition and fees. These higher-priced colleges sometimes have bigger endowments and more grant aid available—which may mean that you can get more financial help to attend that institution.

 

One financial mistake many parents make is automatically eliminating a college because they think it’s too expensive. Many Ivy League schools like Stanford, Yale, and Harvard have scholarships for students who are low income. You never know when a scholarship might be offered so keep your options open.

 

It never hurts to try!

 

Fill Out Paperwork Properly

 

The financial aid process begins with filling out paperwork, namely, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA must be completed to be eligible for federal, state, or institutional funds. Distributed in November by the U.S. Department of Education and available online at www.fafsa.com, or from high school counselors or college financial aid offices, the form must be submitted as soon as possible, ideally at the beginning of the year, to avoid missing deadlines set by each state or institution.

 

“Many students and parents wait to begin this process until it’s too late,” says Cathy Makunga, vice president of scholarship operations at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF). “Federal funds are distributed on a first come, first-served basis but to be eligible, you must have a completed FAFSA and if you wait too long, the money may run out.”

 

Founded in 1975, HSF is the nation’s leading Hispanic higher education fund Believing that the country prospers when all Americans have access to the opportunities a college education can afford, HSF works to address the financial and cultural barriers that keep many Latinos from earning a college degree. It has awarded over $335 million in scholarships over the past 36 years and has supported a broad range of outreach and education programs to help students and their families navigate collegiate life, from gaining admission and securing financial aid to finding employment after graduation.

 

For students who would like to be considered by private schools, the College Board issues a CSS financial aid profile that these schools use to consider a student’s financial need. There is a fee, however, to complete this form. Ultimately, these forms are trying to assess the expected family contribution, or what family’s can afford. Many factors will be considered, including family size, income, dependents, etc. The CSS digs a little deeper, considering assets like a home or car value that can exclude more families.With either form, filling them out completely and accurately is essential.

 

“Errors or inconsistencies with paperwork will delay processing,” says Makunga. “Some schools verify every application, others, just a percentage, but if there’s an inconsistency, an application gets red flagged for verification.”

 

Financial aid comes in all forms, beginning with the federally funded Pell Grant. Students who do not qualify for these funds may be eligible for federally guaranteed student loans or work-study (where students receive on-campus employment). Failing that, parents could seek private bank loans but because they are not federally guaranteed, they’re inflexible if problems arise when it comes time to pay them back. “We generally discourage families from pursuing these loans because they can be costly and don’t have the protections of a federally guaranteed loan,” warns Makunga.

 

Apply Early and Often

 

While FAFSA and CSS help students and parents access federal and state dollars, many scholarship programs exist to help offset the cost of a college education.

 

The internet is a family’s best tool for conducting this research, beginning with the websites of organizations like HSF (HSF.net), the Hispanic College Fund (HispanicFund.org), HACU (HACU.org), and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Instutute (CHCI.org) that feature searcheable scholarship databases on their websites. Other websites with scholarship information include LatinosinCollege.com, NewFuturo.com, ScholarshipsforHispanics.org, CollegeBoard.com, and Fastweb.com.

 

“Don’t focus exclusively on Latino scholarships,” advises Makunga. “They may be more limited in scope. The HSF, for instance, manages 150 scholarship programs. Our applications process opens in September and ends in December. We awarded $29 million in scholarships last year and of the 21,000 applications we received, 4,700 were successful.”

 

Most importantly, begin the process early on. Not weeks or months ahead, but years in advance. “Parents need to begin planning in the ninth and tenth grade, compiling a database of scholarship programs so that they can cast a wide net when searching for college dollars,” says Erika Viramontes, director of scholarship and student retention services at the Hispanic College Fund (HCF).

 

Founded in 1993, HCF is a national non-profit organization with a mission to develop the next generation of Hispanic professionals. For 19 years, it has provided educational, scholarship, and mentoring programs to students throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, establishing a career pipeline of talented and career-driven Hispanics. It’s been recognized by USA Today as one of the nation’s top 25 charities and has twice received Charity Navigator’s top four-star rating for fiscal responsibility. In 2010, the College Board recognized HCF for program innovation.

 

Another valuable resource is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), which includes an education center on its site at CHCI.org where parents and students can download information on a variety of topics. The CHCI also has its own scholarship that has awarded $3.3 million in scholarships to over 1,100 students since its inception in 2001. It’s the only scholarship that does not look at academic achievement but rather at need and community service.

 

Marie Hughes, director of Educational Services at the CHCI, stresses that parents and students can begin the scholarship search as early as they like . “I knew of an eighth grader who had already set aside $10,000 for college,” she says.

 

Some parents assume that they will not qualify for financial aid and neglect to fill out the FAFSA, which Hughes warns is a mistake. “Every college assesses need differently but you won’t know if you qualify unless you fill out the FAFSA,” she urges, and when applying for scholarships, “read the instructions carefully.”

 

For more information on financial aid and scholarships, visit CollegeforLatinos.com.