SALT LAKE CITY
Jessica Ney was scared.
She had done well in high school, balancing cheerleading with maintaining a 3.5 grade-point average, and she knew she wanted to teach high school one day.
But the senior at Highland High School in Salt Lake City also knew she didn't have much money to pay for higher education. "The whole thought of not being able to go was scary," she said.
Miss Ney hoped the fact she lived with a single parent would help her qualify for aid, and to her delight, it did.
She earned an annual $3,600 merit scholarship from Dixie State College of Utah in St. George and an annual $1,060 federal Pell grant — two types of college funding she won't have to repay.
"I would not be surprised if I did have to take out loans at some point," Miss Ney said, but added she doesn't intend to borrow more than she can pay back as she works part time through school.
Miss Ney's attitude is one most high-school graduates should take as they decide which colleges to attend and determine how to pay for them, according to David Feitz, executive director of the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority.
"Students should exhaust all scholarship and grant options first, and use loans as a last resort," he said. "If you do use loans, use them responsibly."
Student borrowing is always a cause for concern, but never more so than now, given a nationwide scandal involving loan corporations including Sallie Mae and Student Loan Xpress. Both stand accused of giving kickbacks to some universities and their loan officers to push their companies' loans, even if the loans weren't the best deal for students.
According to the Project on Student Debt, the national average is about $18,000. Mr. Feitz said there's no hard-and-fast rule about how much to borrow, but he recommends students borrow no more than 8 percent to 10 percent of what they reasonably expect to earn after graduation.
"If you become a doctor, a large amount is not as hard to deal with as if you become a teacher," he said.
Miss Ney's friend and classmate, Jillian Bronchella, will accompany her to Dixie, and she also plans to become a teacher.
For now, her grandmother will pay for education expenses not covered by a Dean's Scholarship, which will provide $1,200 a year and a part-time job.
After finishing general course requirements, she wants to go to Arizona State University, which will cost about $26,000 a year.
"Having enough money to pay back loans will probably be an issue," Miss Bronchella said, but she is hopeful teachers' salaries will increase with growing shortages. She hasn't yet applied for federal financial aid, something Mr. Feitz strongly recommends.
Students should apply for financial aid even if they think they won't qualify for anything, he said, because they often are surprised by the grant and scholarships they receive. Also, many schools use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to dole out their own scholarship money.
"It's never too late to apply, but the sooner you apply, the better your chances of getting money," he said. "You don't even need to know what school you will be attending — just fill out the form as soon as you can."
The FAFSA, available at www.fafsa.ed.gov, asks for information about student and parent income and family situation, including divorce and how many people in the home are attending school.
c Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.