It’s college decision time – and across the nation, high school seniors and their parents are grappling with where they’ll attend school next fall.
Many students and their families often turn to their school counselor throughout the college application process. However, a new survey from the nonprofit American Student Assistance, the organization that writes the Student Loan Ranger blog, shows that school counselors usually lack the necessary resources and training to advise students about financial considerations after they graduate.
Most disturbingly, more than half of the survey’s 1,000-plus respondents reported a ratio of 300 or more students per counselor – which is well above the American School Counselor Association’s recommended standard of 250:1.
While counselors remain a valuable resource during the college applications process, the Student Loan Ranger advises students and parents to also use other sources, such as community organizations and college financial aid offices, to make informed decisions about their educational journey.
For college-bound students, here are four financial tips to help you explore options to pay for college.
1. Find a financial fit: Counselors frequently weigh academic fit over affordability when discussing college options. However, 88 percent of surveyed counselors responded that finances are a major concern for their students.
This may be because many advisers often feel ill-equipped to guide students on financial aid and student debt issues. In the survey, only 21 percent of counselors reported receiving any formal training in handling questions on student debt. The survey also found that 55 percent said they were prepared to advise students on financial aid.
With lack of training, counselors are less confident in advising students on financial matters. The study found that less than 20 percent of surveyed counselors were extremely comfortable in discussing financial aid. And only 17 percent of those surveyed accurately identified the average amount of student loan debt nationally for recent bachelor’s degree recipients – in the $35,001 to $45,000 range.
If college costs are a concern, the Student Loan Ranger recommends starting at a community college for the first two years to fulfill general education requirements, such as courses in English and mathematics, before transferring to a four-year institution. This can be a sound strategy for substantial savings.
However, it’s important to research the college transfer credit policy at the four-year institution where you plan to attend, since it’s a good idea to know upfront how many credits will be accepted.
2. Consider funding options: Surveyed counselors reported that they recommend a variety of alternative options to pay for higher education other than the federal student loans included in financial aid awards. The most popular suggestion is scholarships, recommended by 46 percent of counselors.
Scholarships are a great way to help pay for college, since every dollar you receive means one less dollar you’ll have to cover with savings or loans. But students should be wary that private scholarships can displace financial aid in some instances.
When searching for scholarships, the Ranger advises students to use free online resources, such as Scholarships.com or Cappex.com; you should never pay to research or apply.
Another 42 percent of counselors suggested federal Parent PLUS loans or private education loans when students received award letters with gaps between college costs and financial aid. While loans may make your education dreams come true in the short term, it’s important for parents and students to understand all the long-term risks and responsibilities.
3. Look for ways to reduce tuition costs: Counselors said they suggested several ways for students to save money on their higher education. Seventy-three percent reported they were at least somewhat likely to suggest a student live at home instead of on campus.
An even higher percentage – 94 percent – advised students to take advantage of dual enrollment programs; these programs allow students to earn college credit while they’re still in high school. Students can therefore save money by cutting down on the number of credits they must earn to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree.
4. Do your research: Counselors play an underappreciated role in the college process. But with large caseloads combined with a lack of training in financial aid and student debt, some counselors may not have the capacity to advise students about college costs and associated debt.
For that reason, the Ranger advises you to do your own research on these topics. After all, you’ll be the one who takes on the debt to attend the institution of your choice.