Elizabeth Branin: Don’t miss out on financial aid

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Alright, all of you seniors, it’s time to get down to business. You all know what I’m talking about. That dreadful, tedious and odious task of applying for financial aid and scholarships is now upon you.

As every single one of you should know, the 2014 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was available starting Jan. 1, and the odds are that only a handful of you have already applied. Get on your A-game. As deadlines fly by like Hiccup on the back of Toothless, panic should already have ensued. However, there is still time, but you need to utilize it effectively. Here are a few tips to help you as you come to the end of your financial aid and college application processes.

Stay organized

You need to keep all of your information and applications neatly organized. It helps to have a different file folder for each school or scholarship. When you’re organized, it’s easier to sift through things and remember when certain forms are due.

Options, options, options

The more schools you put on lists, the better. Even if you are absolutely sure you want to go to Texas A&M, you should list at least five schools as potential candidates for your attendance when filling out applications for student aid. If A&M doesn’t see any competition, they won’t offer you as much money as you would probably like. However, if they see that you have your mind on other schools, they’ll raise their bargaining price and offer you more aid to try to get you to choose their school over any other.

Every penny counts

Don’t overlook any scholarships. Even the little ones will eventually add up. I know of a girl who received a scholarship from the Wrigley’s chewing gum company, and she wasn’t even a gum-chewer. If you qualify for something, you should give it a shot. Any sum can really help you out when you find yourself eating Ramen noodles every night.

Look at private institutions

Don’t be so alarmed by the $50,000 per semester price tag on private universities. A good thing to keep in mind is that, while these schools have insane rates, they also offer larger financial aid packages than public universities. So the initial figures may stack up, but so will your scholarship and grant money.

Mrs. Cornelison is your best bud

We hired our dear counselor for a reason, and boy is she good at her job! Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone in to see her for college-y things this year, and I’m only a junior. If you seniors haven’t visited Mrs. Cornelison, you need to change that. Not only is she very informed about everything great and college-y, but she also has information about scholarships only available to Ponder High School students. Seriously, hit her up on that.

Calendars are also your friends

I can’t tell you anything worse than missing a deadline. In some situations, being a little late can be forgiven, but not in the college world. Keep a calendar of deadlines and meetings so that you don’t forget anything important. Additionally, I’ll remind you that the FAFSA deadline is March 2, but don’t wait too long. The sooner you get it filed, the better.

Loans probably aren’t too great of friends

Loans may help you to cover educational costs in the short term, but they can become quite the burden. Believe me, they should be a last resort. If public and private financial aid, along with money from your family, isn’t enough to cover your school and living expenses, consider part-time employment. If that’s still not enough, only then should you take out a loan. Your goal should be to limit the amount of debt you build up.

Consider work-study

Federal Work-Study is a form of financial aid you may receive by filling out the FAFSA. When the form asks you if you are interested in student employment, you might consider checking “yes.” You’ll have to meet certain requirements for eligibility, and your total award will depend on your application date, level of need and the funding level of your school. The work-study program allows you to work in community service and in fields related to your major. Positions may be on or off campus. Your earnings can start from the current federal minimum wage and go up depending on where you do your work-study and the type of work you perform.

There are also non-federal work-studies available, but they are not based on financial need. These programs usually only offer on-campus positions and, unlike in the Federal Work-Study program, your earnings will be used to determine your financial need when filing the FAFSA.

Talk to your parents about tax deductions

The federal government offers federal tax benefits, tax credits, tax deductions and savings incentives that can offset out-of-pocket college expenses. A tax credit reduces the amount of income tax you may have to pay. A deduction reduces the amount of your income that is subject to tax, thus generally reducing the amount of tax you may have to pay. Certain savings plans allow the accumulated interest to grow tax-free until money is taken out (known as distribution), or allow the distribution to be tax-free, or both. An exclusion from income means that you won’t have to pay income tax on the benefit you’re receiving, but you also won’t be able to use that same tax-free benefit for a deduction or credit. To learn more about how this works, you should visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov. Look specifically for information regarding the American Opportunity Credit, the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit, the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit, Tuition and Fees Deduction, Student Loan Interest Deduction, the Coverdell Education Savings Account and the 529 College Savings Plan.

So, as you’re finishing up the process of finding the perfect college and raking in the money to pay for it, keep these tips in mind. Remember, information is power. The more research you do, the more opportunities for financial aid you will find. Good luck to all of you. We wish you the best.

ELIZABETH BRANIN is a junior at Ponder High School and a participant in the Denton Record-Chronicle’s “Speak Out Loud” program for student journalists.

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