PhotoHigh school students planning to attend college now have access to a free workbook to help them prepare.

Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) has published the 2017-2018 Opportunities book, and online resource that walks students and their parents through the process of choosing a college, applying and obtaining financial aid.

Paula Craw, vice president of Student Success and Outreach for ECMC says the process starts with picking the right school. She says the choice isn't just about the cost of tuition.

“I think the fit for the student is really key," Craw told ConsumerAffairs. "Considerations include the size of the campus, the size of the classrooms, even the neighborhood. Its distance from home can also be a big consideration.”

Importance of financial aid

Financial aid is critical to today’s high school students, as college costs have risen dramatically in recent years. USA Today found college tuition has increased at roughly double the rate of inflation over the last decade.

Given the reality that many students may never attain a college education without help, Craw says the workbook spends a lot of time guiding families through various scholarship options.

“We believe the scholarship piece is critical because we always want students to find free money,” she said.

Once accepted at a school, students should fill out the federal student aid form, known in education jargon as the FAFSA form. This form contains financial information about students and their families to determine eligibility for financial aid.

The workbook outlines the required information and directs applicants to this Department of Education worksheet to help organize their information.

In addition to possible government aid, the FAFSA opens the door to potential scholarships and grants provided by individual colleges and universities. Schools begin accepting these forms each October and Craw says students should file them quickly.

File early

“We recommend that students apply just as early as possible because many of these aid packages from individual colleges are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis,” she said.

In addition to the workbook, ECMC also provides a free tool called College Abacus, which helps users quickly determine how much aid they could receive from several different schools.

Craw stresses that students should also have a conversation with someone in the financial aid office of their chosen school because a discussion of an individual student's needs, interests, and background may lead to other sources of student aid.

A report last month revealed just how important it is to investigate every source of financial aid. An analysis by personal finance site NerdWallet found $2.3 billion in federal education grant money went unclaimed last year.

Application prep

In addition to the financial component, the workbook also has sections designed to prepare students for the application process. Craw says it contains fairly general information on exam prep, with links to the individual test sites.

"We also provide a checklist for a student's last two years of high school, detailing when these tests should be taken," Craw said. "We don't go into a lot of detail because we want the students to work closely with their high school counselors to get ready for these tests.”

The workbook even includes recommendations on avoiding scholarship scams. Craw says it costs nothing to apply for a scholarship. If an organization tells you it needs a check before you can apply, Craw says that's a good reason "to run the other way."


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