My wife and I are looking for help in getting our son into college. He is a junior in high school. His mother and I are on disability. My wife is fighting stage four breast cancer. I was hurt at work two years ago. We would like to see our son go to college but there is no way we would be able to pay for it. My wife's education is 11 years and mine is 7 years. We are hoping we can get some help. Iwas told because of our situation there would be lots of help available to us, but being uneducated ourselves it's very difficult for us to even know how to look. My wife was given two to four years to live by her doctor at Dana-Farber in Boston. That was two years ago and we are praying for her to live to see him graduate high school and longer. Any help or advice you can give us would mean a lot to us.— Jim R. Planning and paying for college is difficult even for parents who have been to college. It is complicated. The alphabet soup of acronyms like FAFSA and EFC can discourage and intimidate some families. Most families worry about missing something important. They often worrymore about what they don't know than about what they do know. Do not panic. There only a few things you really need to do to get financial aid for college. First, find yourself a "mentor" who can help you understand the steps you need to take. This should be someone who has recent knowledge and experience helping students pay for college, such as a high school guidance counselor or the financial aid administrator at a local college. It could also be a family friend, a teacher or someone you know from church. Beware of anybody who is trying to sell you a product or service, as their advice may be self-serving. It is also important that your mentor's knowledge is based on recent experience. Friends who went to college many years ago may mean well, but financial aid changes a lot every year. FinAid's College Power Bulletin is a short four-page guide that discusses in simple terms why a student should go to college and how to pay for college. (See also the Fastweb article Unique Concerns of First-Generation College Students for practical tips on making the most of the freshman year in college.) Your son will be considered a first generation college student. A first generation college student is a student whose parents and siblings have never gone to college. In some cases a student will be considered a first generation college student if neither parent has obtained a Bachelor's degree, even if one of the parents has an Associate's degree or Certificate. There are many scholarships available for first generation college students. Sometimes these are called "first in family" scholarships. The Coca Cola Scholars Foundation sponsors one of the largest scholarship programs for first generation college students through about 400 colleges. So ask each college whether they have scholarships and other special assistance for first generation college students. Also ask your church if they offer any college scholarships. Other scholarships are listed in the Fastweb article Scholarships for First Generation Students. Additional scholarships for first generation college students are included in the Fastweb scholarship database. Create a personal background profile for your son to find scholarships for which he is eligible. This is a free service. To see scholarships for first generation college students, edit your son's scholarship search profile by clicking on the "My Profile" link in the upper right hand corner of the Fastweb web site. Then click on "Parent Activities". Check the box for "Didn't Attend/Graduate College" in the list of Parent Attributes. While editing the profile, look for other relevant student and parent attributes. Students who answer the optional questions tend to match twice as many scholarships as students who answer only the required questions. For example, there's a parent attribute for "Cancer, Survivor/Living With". (Several scholarships for children of parents who have had cancer can be found at www.finaid.org/cancer, but more scholarships are listed in the Fastweb scholarship database.) 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.
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