Thomas J. Botzman: Understanding financial aid process key to financing a college education

Thomas J. Botzman - Guest Columnist | August 27th, 2016 4:25 pm

Dear high school, middle school and grade school students and families,

Every year, hundreds of new students arrive on the campus of Misericordia University in search of their dreams. They are the next generation of entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, scientists and more. Countless others also enroll at institutions around the country, eager to get started on making friends, studying and participating in campus activities. It is my favorite time of the year, and certainly an exciting time for students and their families.

For some, though, college is sadly an unattainable goal. A student – perhaps you or one of your friends – has the capacity and eagerness to learn and wants to go to college, but does not know how to pay for it. And, unfortunately, that student misses the opportunity to attend college because she or he lacks the financial wherewithal. In many cases, that is a stark reality.

In many instances, though, there are resources available to help students in need pay for college. The best way to start is to ask. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 30 percent of all students intending to go to college do not apply for financial aid. Twenty percent fail to apply for any aid, and about 10 percent do not apply for federal aid.

Federal aid comes in a number of forms, including grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and veteran’s benefits. The Pell Grant, for example, is given to low-income students and provides up to $5,815 per year in financial aid. In Pennsylvania, the PHEAA Grant program awards students up to $4,000 annually.

In addition, colleges and universities, such as Misericordia University, supplement federal and state aid with institutional grants. Fourteen percent of students attending a four-year, private institution only apply for aid given by the college or university – and pass on federal and state aid. The reasons for not applying are solid at times, such as the estimated 40 percent of students who do not have a financial need. If that’s you, congratulations on being both fortunate and atypical.

The other 60 percent do need help, though. So why would so many not apply for financial aid? The top reason, according to the survey, was that 44 percent of respondents believed they were ineligible. If you cannot afford college, my advice is to assume you might be eligible and apply for financial aid from anyone who might be able to help you. That certainly includes federal, state, and institutional programs.

The second-most cited reason – 33 percent – was that students did not want to incur debt. It is important to note that grants and scholarships do not require repayment, so no debt is incurred. Think of them as gifts with a very good purpose of furthering your dreams and ambitions. Some aid may require debt in the form of a loan. Many of those loans, though, such as the federal Stafford Loan, carry interest rates that are subsidized by the federal government. So, even the debt can be less than you may have expected.

The next two reasons are even clearer to address: 13 percent of students do not have information on how to apply for aid and the forms – such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA – require too much work. The answer to these problems is simple: call, write, or visit a financial aid office and ask for assistance.

My hope is that you will give higher education an opportunity to work with you, so you can realize your dream of earning a college degree. The first step is the easiest, as it begins with asking for help in navigating the complex network of financial aid.

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Thomas J. Botzman

Guest Columnist

Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D., is president of Misericordia University in Dallas Township, the oldest four-year institution of higher education in Luzerne County.


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