Advice to Parents Whose Child will be the First in the Family to Go to College
Beware of scholarship scams. If you have to pay money to get money, it is probably a scam. Never invest more than a postage stamp to find out information about scholarships or to apply for scholarships. Nobody can guarantee you’ll win a scholarship. Do not give out your bank account number, credit card number or social security number to apply for a scholarship.
When choosing where your son should apply to college, don’t skip any particular college because of a high sticker price. Look on the college’s web site for a net price calculator. This tool will ask a few questions to give you a personalized estimate of the net price after subtracting grants from the government and the college from the total cost. Usually the local public college will have the lowest net price. Community colleges offer a variety of Certificate programs that take less than a year to complete, as well as 2-year Associate’s degree programs. Public 4-year colleges offer 4-year Bachelor’s degree programs. There are also several dozen higher-cost non-profit 4-year colleges with generous no loans financial aid policies that may also have a very low net price for low income and first generation college students.
In January of your son’s senior year in high school you should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at www.fafsa.ed.gov. This form is used to apply for federal and state aid, as well as for financial aid from most colleges. For example, the FAFSA is used to apply for the federal Pell Grant for low-income students. (A grant is a gift of money that does not need to be repaid.) Some colleges have additional forms. You will have to file the FAFSA form each year your son is in college. If you have questions about completing the FAFSA, call 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). The YMCA sponsors a program called College Goal Sunday where high school guidance counselors and college financial aid administrators help families complete the FAFSA in January, February and March.
The FAFSA form doesn’t have any place where you can mention your family’s unusual financial circumstances, such as the disability and cancer. After you file the FAFSA, ask the colleges for a “professional judgment review”. They will want a copy of any documentation of the unusual circumstances. The college financial aid administrator can choose to make adjustments to compensate for the unusual circumstances.
There is also money that you can obtain by filing a federal income tax return. The Hope Scholarship tax credit provides up to $2,500 a year based on amounts you paid for your son’s college education. It may be worthwhile to file a federal income return to claim this tax credit even if you aren’t required to file a federal income tax return, since up to $1,000 of the tax credit is refundable. There may also be other refundable tax credits for which you are eligible.