Real Talk: Virtual conference educates students on paying for college

For more help, students and families are reminded to ask counselors at their school, financial aid counselors at colleges, and organizations hosting financial aid events such as scholarship or FAFSA nights. (Courtesy photo)

By Reginald L Allen II
Special to the AFRO

Queenstar Akrong and College Board hosted another ‘Real Talk’ virtual conference virtual conference series providing information to help Black students and families prepare for their transition to college. This most recent conference was titled “Real Talk: Paying for College Edition.” 

Along with Akrong were financial aid experts from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Emory University, Rutgers University, Stanford University, Tuskegee University, Washington University in St Louis, Wellesley College and University Of Wisconsin. They presented important details about Virtual College Exploration initiative and held another virtual conference titled, “Real Talk: Paying for College Edition.”

Throughout the conference, the experts emphasized earning “free money,” while debunking financial aid myths.

Free money includes grants, scholarships, work-study programs and any other funds that the student doesn’t have to pay back. Tools like the Student Search Service and the Opportunity Scholarships were introduced as simple, yet valuable assets for students to use to earn free money.

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An important first step is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the “FAFSA.” For seniors preparing for college within the next year, they should complete their FAFSA. The applications are available starting Oct. 1 of every year. Students and parents will need to prepare tax documents and both have an FSA ID to complete the FAFSA; to reduce the moving parts, families have the IRS Data Retrieval tool to input information online.

Though juniors will not be able to complete an application yet, they can use FAFSA 4Caster and MyInTuition as tools to research the cost for attendance at their dream school. This in combination with the net-price calculator provided on college websites can help ease the confusion.

“Do not rule out a school because of the sticker price,” said Andrea Stewart Douglas, associate director of financial aid at Washington University in St Louis, “you could earn financial aid to go there cheaper than your flagship state school.”

For high school underclassmen, much may not be available to them, but they were advised to explore colleges and collegiate prep programs. Programs like Big Future by College Board gives students the opportunity to explore more than 2,000 colleges and universities virtually.

A critical piece for students is the ‘Expected Family Contribution’ index number: a rating that dictates how much a family should pay for their child’s college education. The “EFC” can change depending on financial need yearly so, it is important to reapply for FAFSA annually.

Along with the FAFSA, students should utilize the Student Search Service and the Opportunity Scholarships provided by College Board. The student search service connects students with more than 1,500 schools and scholarship programs. Students and families can enroll in the service by registering during the PSAT/NMSQT, PSAT 10, SAT or opting-in online.

Once students are registered for the essential financial aid tools, [depending on their year] they should be comparing their options and advocating for themselves.

Advocating comes in the forms of your experience and financial background. Joy St John, dean of admission and financial aid at Wellesly College, provided sample questions to ask your university financial aid counselors to possibly earn more money:

Have you considered that we do not own our home?

Have you considered that we support a grandparent that does not live in our home?

Also, you have to be competitive to earn scholarships. Being involved in school clubs, outside organizations, holding positions of leadership and a part-time job are vital pieces of student résumé.

Finally, the work does not stop once the school year is over. Any time invested in applying for or writing scholarship essays over the summer is well utilized time that will pay off in the future. 

For more help, students and families are reminded to ask counselors at their school, financial aid counselors at colleges, and organizations hosting financial aid events such as scholarship or FAFSA nights. 

A word for the parents came from Joseph Montgomery, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Tuskegee University. “Be there with them,’ said Montgomery, “it is a team effort.”

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