05/23/10 — Students juggling cost of college

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Students juggling cost of college

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 23, 2010 1:50 AM

Kayla Simmons has always had her heart set on going to East Carolina University and studying nursing.

But with the economy the way it is now -- not to mention the competitive arena for students contemplating college and vying for financial aid -- she started considering community college as an option.

The Goldsboro High School senior gained more insight into the financial aid spectrum when she began working as an office assistant at the school.

College was always on the horizon, Ms. Simmons said. It was just a matter of where.

"My family is really, really huge," she said. "Between both my parents, there are 10 of us. My parents would always drill it in our heads -- don't stop at high school, go to college."

She applied to two schools, ECU and UNC-Greensboro, and was accepted by both.

Being able to afford them was another consideration.

That's when she widened her search to include Wayne Community College, which is closer to home and also has a nursing program. Wayne, she said, is "definitely an option," especially when she learned that its nursing program was affiliated with ECU.

"My main reason for going to ECU, I'd wanted to go out there so I could have life experiences and travel and tell stories to my kids one day about what their mom did," she said. "It's hard to choose because Wayne is down the street from my house and ECU is like 45 minutes from here. ... I think it's more about the financial capability.

"Both nursing programs are really good. It just boils down to how much I get in scholarships."

So far, she has been notified of more opportunities at ECU, but there is the possibility of getting some aid from UNC's Greensboro campus since she has already taken several online classes through that school.

Ms. Simmons also got scholarship money from church and $3,000 toward her first year, courtesy of Wal-Mart.

Her advice to other students anticipating a college career -- do your research.

"Do what you have to do to learn what you need to know because if you don't, you're going to be in a lot of debt," she said. "Fill out as many scholarships as you can because you never know where you're going to get scholarships."

Moriah Poland and Jamin Croom, both seniors at Charles B. Aycock High School, have also been accepted to ECU. But their paths were slightly different.

Ms. Poland applied to three colleges, was accepted by each -- including N.C. State University's honors program and elementary education program, which only accepts 60 students a year. But when she was chosen for a Teaching Fellow scholarship, she was assigned to ECU.

Her classmate only applied to one school.

"I applied to ECU because not only is that where most of my family went, but I also heard that they have a good medical program," said Croom, who aspires to become a clinical therapist.

The financial aid maze was confusing, he said. Through a glitch, he applied for funding, which he received, but it was for another semester.

"It was frustrating, they asked for a lot of information," he said. "We had to drive to Greenville to work it out."

He has since gotten some grant money and loans to cover his initial semester, but ideally he, like most students, would prefer to receive "free money" -- scholarships and grants that don't have to be paid back.

"We don't want the loans," Croom said. "We might get some financial aid, so we just keep looking."

Ms. Poland, too, has learned the importance of surveying the landscape to see what's out there.

"I applied for a Goldsboro Junior Woman's Club scholarship and got $300," she said. "I'm still waiting to hear from ECU about any scholarship that I have received from them. I probably won't hear back on that until mid-summer."

That's why guidance counselors like Renee Dilda, of Charles B. Aycock High School, advise students to fill out the information on FAFSA -- Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

"I've had so many students that say they won't apply for financial aid because they won't qualify," she said. "I tell them to apply. You need to let the government tell you that you don't qualify, because there may be things that you qualify for."

Plus the program can also alert families to other options that might not be readily obvious.

"It's competitive to get into any of the colleges and it's getting harder and harder, but they're not turning anyone away because of money. They'll still offer them the grants and loans," said Yvonne Mills, another guidance counselor at the school.

Students are encouraged to assume responsibility in the process.

"We work closely with our kids," Mrs. Dilda said. "We meet with them every spring and then as seniors. We put out a scholarship newsletter every few weeks. We expect the kids to go on that Web site (and see) if there's anything they feel like they qualify for."

There are also other programs, like CFNC, College Foundation of North Caro-lina, where students can set their own parameters -- race, gender, ethnic background -- so they will be linked with some of the lesser-known scholarships and grants that are available.

Any way you look at it, though, it's not getting less competitive.

More students are pursuing a college education, and with it, are searching for how to pay for it.

Todd Anderson, headmaster at Wayne Country Day School, says it's a different world than it was a generation ago.

"North Carolina colleges, the public colleges and universities, the community colleges and the public universities are such great bargains," he said. "We're seeing a lot of kids getting into prestigious colleges, but they're declining them because they're doing the math."

Students these days, he said, might opt to take a step down and get their requirements done at a community college or go a less expensive route and then transfer to complete their major.

"Our students, the college trips that we take, they learn not only how to become good candidates but good shoppers," he said. "The importance of negotiating -- what do you offer for this, what do you offer for that? ... Kids are becoming very smart shoppers, and I think the economy has forced that."

Money definitely played a role for Cameron Ford, WCDS senior and co-salutatorian, who applied to six colleges, was accepted to three and plans to attend Wake Forest University.

In an ideal world, he said, money wouldn't be a deciding factor. But when push came to shove, it helped to know he could be happy with either choice.

There was a time when classmate Quinton Grady could not decide between any of the four schools where he had applied and been accepted.

"I applied to South Carolina, was accepted but deferred from the honors program," he said. "That was a setback. Then I heard from High Point University. It was a smaller school. I didn't see myself going there until I visited. There's like a lot of things provided for you."

Money is definitely a huge factor in the decision-making process, he said. But it also helps to feel like the school is the right fit.

"It's really important that the school appears to really want you to go there, that you don't feel like just a number or lost in the crowd," he said.

Katie Etheridge, of WCDS, kept it pretty simple and wound up enrolling at N.C. State University without any financial aid.

Not that she didn't apply. She said she competed for such prestigious awards as the Parks Scholarship and University Scholars program. When she didn't get either, she still decided that N.C. State was the best choice for her.

In part, she said, because of its study abroad program and other opportunities she feels the college had to offer.

She will be enrolled in the college of management, aspiring one day to work in international business.

"For me, it was where I was really going to excel and be able to do what I wanted to do with my life," she said.

The pressure was off for Tim Hooks, a basketball player at WCDS, who was approached last summer with an athletic scholarship offer to attend N.C. Central University.

"I had other options besides basketball," he said. "I didn't really worry about academically because I already had the athletic scholarship, signed in November. That took care of everything."

Athletic scholarships are less prevalent, regardless of the economy, he said. Thankfully, it will afford him the chance to pursue a college education and work toward his ultimate goal -- studying psychology.

Blake Marchese took perhaps the biggest gamble of all.

His roll of the dice began when he applied to eight schools, scattered from North Carolina to the North and Midwest.

"My mom wanted me to go somewhere I would be happy," said the WCDS valedictorian.

All of his targeted schools were private and no, his family could not have afforded them, he said.

"That's why I applied to so many," he said. "You don't know where the financial aid will be."

He was initially set on the University of Chicago, but the financial aid didn't come through. It came down to looking at dollars and cents, as his final two choices were pared down between Harvard and Duke.

Then, unexpectedly, a few weeks ago he learned he was a finalist for the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship, a merit-based scholarship for North and South Carolina students. Out of 26 finalists, 13 get scholarships.

Marchese was an alternate.

When a student dropped out, though, the slot went to him. A full ride to one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

"If I got that, I knew there would be no debt for my family," he said. "Without it, I would have had to scramble."

Bottom line, each of the students said -- keep your options open. And keep trying.

"Even if the scholarship doesn't appear like much -- churches may give out a smaller scholarship," Ford said. "Even though they don't seem like much, they add up over time."

"You never know until you try," Marchese said. "A lot of people are afraid to apply to the largest schools because they're afraid they won't be able to afford it. My family wouldn't be able to afford the schools I applied to -- you can't be afraid. You just have to go for it."