The beginning of a new school year for most students means catching up with friends after the long summer break and returning to a busy routine of juggling school, homework and an array of extracurricular activities.
But for many high school students, it should be a time to look ahead a year or more, to when back-to-school will mean starting college.
With the rising cost of higher education and the growing prevalence of recent college graduates smothered by debt, school guidance counselors and university financial aid experts say it is never too early to start planning. Taking the time to write scholarship essays and fill out the necessary paperwork could make the difference between reducing the cost of a college education or paying retail.
While scholarships are regarded as the gold standard to help pay for college tuition, they are not the only way — and may not even be the most lucrative. Students and their families who take the time to explore the options to paying for college are the ones who are most likely to score the biggest bonanza, according to experts.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Star-Telegram
“We encourage our students to start this process early,” says Jennifer Fleming, director of guidance and counseling for the Keller school district. “We tell freshman and sophomores that it isn’t too early to start looking. Filing out scholarship applications can be a full-time job.”
While many websites provide information on scholarship information, the Keller school district subscribes to a site called College Guidance Consultants that lists of hundreds of scholarship opportunities that are often not found on other sites, particularly scholarships just for Texans. The district provides its login code to every student in the district, Fleming says.
Many scholarship applications require an essay, but some prefer a poem or a video. The scholarship opportunities range from the $500 “Race to Inspire” essay contest for runners who have participated in a 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon to the “VFW Voice of Democracy Contest” that awards up to $30,000 for an audio essay on a patriotic theme.
There are also scholarships for students from every ethnic or religious group as well as scholarships for students pursuing just about every career path from law to medicine to manufacturing and mortuary science.
Beyond these scholarships, local organizations such as the Keller Rotary Club and the Keller Education Foundation give scholarships to Keller students.
While these scholarship opportunities are abundant, most award up to about $1,500, which doesn’t go far in paying for a college education — much less a first semester of tuition, Fleming says.
But a more lucrative approach is to be flexible and consider options that offset the cost of college rather than finding extra money to pay for it.
The top college destination for Keller school graduates is Tarrant County College, followed by the University of North Texas, Fleming says. Some students complete two years at TCC and then transfer while others choose UNT to commute or because it is reasonably priced compared to other colleges and universities.
“Many of our students are looking to save money and this is the way to do it,” she says.
Many budget-minded students rule out schools like Baylor or Texas Christian University because of the sticker shock of about $60,000 a year for school.
But students might be wise to consider a private school because those students often have more money available for academic aid than public schools.
“Private schools generally have large endowments from generous alumni and donors,” says Mike Scott, TCU’s director of financial aid.
TCU awards about $10 million a year in state and federal aid and has a budget of about $100 million a year in private money to award, Scott says. By comparison, UNT awards about $39 million a year in scholarships, according to financial aid advisors for the school.
Recognizing that TCU is very expensive and beyond the reach of students from middle-class families who don’t quality for federal aid, the university created a grant program specifically for middle-class students, Scott says.
“We tell prospective students, ‘Don’t make a decision that you can’t afford it,’ “ he says. “Make a decision to apply for admission and scholarships.”
Oftentimes, grants and scholarships from private schools can reduce the cost to the price of a public university education, Scott says.
Fleming says she helped a former student in his college search that resulted in a full scholarship to a small private college in Kansas — a school that wasn’t even on his radar.
“It can pay off to be flexible and consider different options,” she says. Guidance counselors in all Keller high schools can help with these searches.
Although UNT is one of the more affordable options in higher education, it still can be a financial stretch for many students. As a result, the university offers many opportunities for students, including federal aid, school administered scholarships and a vast work-study program with many different types of on-campus jobs.
And like other Texas schools of higher education, UNT has an incentive that reimburses some tuition money to students who graduate within four years.
The best chance to land scholarship money from UNT is to “apply for admission early and fill out a really simple scholarship application,” says Lisa Goodwin, assistant director of scholarships at UNT.
Experts also advice all students seeking scholarships, financial aid or loans to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). Even students not seeking financial assistance are encouraged to complete the FASFA as insurance in case of an unforeseen.
Experts suggest high school students can offset college costs by taking advancement placement and dual credit classes in high schools.
Ed Turney, director of customer service and scholarships at UNT, recalls a student whose father lost his job mid-semester, leaving the student unable to meet financial payments. Because the student had an FASFA on file, UNT was able to quickly help the student obtain financial assistance.
Experts says another helpful way for students to offset the cost of college is by taking advantage of opportunities such as advancement placement and dual credit classes in high schools. Because of changes in state laws, it is easier than ever for students to obtain college credits this way and the Texas Education Agency requires every public high school in Texas to offer students the opportunity to earn at least 12 dual credits. Dual credits simultaneously apply toward high school graduation and college credit.
“We have students come here with the equivalent of an associate’s degree,” Turney says. “Dual credit classes help students bridge the transition between the expectation of high school and college classes so they have a benefit beyond saving money.”
Expert tips for paying for college
• Explore scholarship opportunities early using tools such as the College Guidance Consultants website with login access available to every Keller ISD student.
• Apply for school admission early and fill out school scholarship forms.
• Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA).
• Keep your options open and consider private colleges and universities that have abundant financial resources.
• Employers such as American Airlines offer scholarships to children of their employees. The University of North Texas and other schools offer tuition assistance to employees and their children.
• Take advantage of opportunities such as dual credit and advanced placement to earn college credit in high school. Financial aid is also available for dual classes offered through community colleges.
• Consult high school guidance counselors and college financial aid advisors for help and to identify resources.
• Avoid paying for scholarship searches; high school guidance and college financial aid offices can provide the same information — or more — for free.