- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

Going to college means rushing fraternities, forging lifelong friendships and, of course, gaining a first-class education. None of that is possible, however, if a student can’t afford the tab.

That’s where financial aid comes in, at least for those savvy enough to look hither and yon for it. Some grants and scholarships are within easy reach, yet many economic packages are ignored by students.

It all starts with FAFSA, or Free Application for Financial Student Aid, the main federal form students must fill out to begin the aid search. The document asks how much a student’s family can reasonably afford to contribute so it can be measured against the total costs of any institution.

The math sounds basic enough, but in reality it’s anything but simple, says Kent Weaver, supervisor of school counseling services for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Neglecting to fill out the form is “the biggest stumbling block,” Mr. Weaver says. “They don’t fill it out because they have the perception that their family makes too much money to qualify.”

It’s up to a financial aid adviser from the student’s school to help them scrape for any aid possible, from such federal help as Pell Grants, which come with no strings attached to subsidized student loans, which don’t accrue interest until the student finishes his or her education.

Some students manage their college expenses by completing work-study programs — perhaps staffing the college library’s circulation desk for a spell or stacking trays in the cafeteria to assuage their bills.

“Beyond [work-study programs and federal aid], the college may have its own institutional money from its endowment,” he says. “Most ‘name’ universities have rather large endowments behind them.”

Those scholarships often come with strings attached. Students might have to keep their grades above a certain level or stay within a specific major to qualify for the full amount.

Having access to the World Wide Web gives today’s students a major advantage over their parents’ generation.

“Before, you walked into your school and there was a file cabinet and you went rooting through the folders,” he says.

Dan Small, director of student financial assistance at George Washington University, says today’s budding college students are often a challenge to those looking to give them a hand.

“Some students come in extremely informed. Others really don’t have a clue,” Mr. Small says.

Even prepared students often ignore sources for fear their household income makes them ineligible.

“They’re probably the ones who should try … what they perceive as good incomes is more in the middle income level range,” he says.

Students also need to understand the differences between one university and another during the search process. Deadline dates for aid application can also vary widely.

Web sites like www.fastweb.com give students a one-stop place to start their scholarship search. Those looking for more help may consider professional search companies, although some charge a fee for their services, Mr. Small warns.

“Sometimes you can find all the information you need without paying for it,” he says.

Any time during a student’s high school years is “not too early” to start scouring for scholarships, says Francesca German, a counselor and scholarship coordinator with the Arlington School District.

“Certainly the number of opportunities for scholarships are very few and far between for ninth- and 10th-graders,” Ms. German says, but getting students thinking about the process can be productive.

Students can opt to wait until their senior year before beginning the search in earnest, but Ms. German cautions not to wait for too many deadlines to pass.

Scholarships abound, but students face better odds if they concentrate their search efforts closer to home.

“You stand better chances, statistically, of getting money if you focus on what’s offered locally rather than nationally,” she says. “With national ones, unless they’re top of their class and have pages and pages of community service hours, they’re so competitive.”

It also helps if the student gives of himself or herself along the way.

“I see more requests [from scholarship committees] for leadership opportunities. It’s not so much of a variety of community service acts,” she says.

The best way to impress a scholarship judge or group is to illustrate not just compassion, but an ability to directly affect one’s community.

Ms. German says students who critically assess their hometowns and come up with solutions to local problems stand the best chance of impressing scholarship observers.

“One student saw a need for winter clothing in her community and had a coat drive … that’s going to stand out,” she says.

Some students may have entered college without much financial support — or impressive grades — but soon rallied to raise their GPAs noticeably. That could mean the student’s future semesters will be easier to afford if they keep hustling for more aid.

“Don’t give up on getting better grades. Some scholarships target students who turned things around, and also a few focus on kids who may have had obstacles to overcome,” she says.

Eric Hill, a career education specialist with Washington Lee High School in Arlington says groups from churches to the Virginia Concrete Association offer aid for students.

Many of the local scholarships are based on financial need, with only about 10 percent merit-based, says Mr. Hill, adding that Washington Lee students received more than $3 million in scholarship aid last year. Need-based scholarships typically don’t take into account other factors like service or grades, but merit-based scholarships depend on those factors.

The Arlington Community Foundation, a nonprofit charity that helps local residents via a variety of philanthropic measures, drew 184 applicants for its 60 available scholarships last year.

“It’s hard to get seniors to focus on this after they finished the college essay process, but normally if you apply for 13 scholarships you ought to get at least three,” he says.

And the money isn’t just set aside for grade-A students.

“They even give scholarships for students with 2.0 and 2.5 grade point averages, encouraging them to go to college,” he says.

Ms. German agrees that students have plenty of distractions during their senior year, but says wryly “those who hear me out … are the ones who run the risk of actually having some money” for college.

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