If you’re looking at colleges … be prepared

“What do you mean she got letters from six different college admissions offices.”

Whether your child is 10 months old or is a high school freshman, it is never too early to begin taking steps to lead to the day your child is handed his or her diploma as they cross from childhood into the first moments of perceived adulthood.

Access to a college education is one of the greatest opportunities parents can give a child. It is also guaranteed to be one of the most expensive responsibilities parents can agree to shoulder for their children.

Unfortunately, even in America in 2011, the right to a college education experience of any type is not an automatically available opportunity for anyone.

Even the documented best and brightest of America’s teenage scholars increasingly are finding that the battle for a college diploma can be more challenging to their bank account than the very demanding college coursework.

There are no easy answers for parents or students to look to for help accessing additional money to dedicate to paying for a college education.

Getting into college is one thing; staying there and graduating without having amassed a staggering amount of education related debt is a whole different issue.

The chance to go to college is often something people wish for, dream of, and hope will happen; but all too often parents realize their efforts to help fund a college education for their child should have started long ago in order to make the process less painful on the household budget as a whole. The fragile economy still being seen across the nation is doing nothing to make it easier on families to find the means to afford college tuition.

But alternative possibilities for gaining admission do exist and can sometimes be connected to if a student is an outstanding scholar, or standout athlete, but experts agree these are exceptions, not the norm.

One of the most cost effective ways to do basic research about the entire college admissions process is generally available at your local library through its free Internet programs, and by reviewing materials available for the asking on the library shelf. Your school guidance counselor is also a good source for information.

Investing no more than the cost of gas used to drive to your local library, and a little of your time, can easily help parents gain access to limitless up to date information concerning general college summary information, admissions details, possible financing assistance ideas, contact names and information and much more.

If you are not sure how to approach these materials simply ask for a little help from your resource librarian.

Details of College Board testing and even preparation materials for the ACT and SAT are usually available through public library sources.

The nation’s preeminent source for current college admissions information: the College Board, is available to the general public also through the Internet via your local public library and also through many school guidance resource libraries.

The College Board is a not-for-profit membership association whose mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1990, it has a membership of more than 5,700 schools, colleges, universities and other educational organizations.

Annually, the board serves seven million students and their parents; 23,000 high schools; and 3,800 colleges through major programs and services in college readiness, college admission, guidance, assessment, financial aid and enrollment.

Information about College Board services and resources can be accessed on the web at www.collegeboard.org or by calling 212-713-8000.

Even in the U.S. in 2011, a college education is not something every person can access, but experts say the competition for admissions and financial awards to help pay college education expenses have never been tougher. This influences an increase seen in the number of students and parents getting acquainted with details of the college search and selection process even before the student heads into high school, say admissions professionals.

The detailed process of applying for financial aid consideration is getting more on a national basis, as now all applicants must file eligibility information.

The good news: there has never been a time when more information about accessing scholarships, grants and other awards to cover educational costs has been more readily available to the general public.

Key points to consider when determining the timetable and strategy that is right for your household can be found at most state level higher education help sites on the web. Those points often include such tips as how to look for scholarships, grants and other free monies; identifying deadlines that apply to your choices; tips on how to fill out the required ree Application for Federal student Aid; methods on comparing various financial aid offers; and how to be sure you have the amount of money you anticipate needing for the coming college year.

Education interests at all levels make up a huge industry, and are an important part of the nation’s financial industry, making it important for applicants to understand exactly what financial funding plan they are constructing, say financial experts.

Basic forms of financial aid include several types which are often referred to as being free, from savings, through low-cost loans and alternative sources.

Free sources include those not requiring repayment as long as obligations are met, scholarships, matching programs, grants and work-study programs. Sources often include the federal government, your state, your school, employers, sources within the community and religious organizations.

Savings accounts that can help fund education include general savings, 529 plans, pre-paid tuition offers and similar programs.

Low cost loans from the federal level are available for undergraduates, graduate students, and parents of students.

Repayment of these is often offered at reduced rates, and can include generous repayment options and generally do not carry prepayment penalties. Schools also routinely offer institutional loans and flexible tuition payment plans.

Alternative sources can be looked to in order to fill funding gaps still existing even though aid options are exhausted. Home equity loans and lines of credit can also be used in some situations.

College Board experts strongly recommend avoiding the urge to cash out insurance policies, retirement funds or to use high interest advances on credit cards.

Financial expert Janet Bodnar, editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance takes a practical approach to college choices and timing.

“Your child may be better off passing up college, at least for a year. Not everyone is ready for college at 18. It might literally pay if your child takes a year off to mature, earns some money and figures out what he really wants to study. Education and training are critical in today’s economy,” she shared recently. “But rather than spend time and money on a degree from a four-year institution, it might be more appropriate for some kids to consider a one or two year certificate program from community college in a field such as health care or engineering.”

She also recommends stepping back and crunching numbers before making decisions to borrow money for education, and remembering to keep the anticipated starting salary amount as an influential part of the equation.

Bodnar is a strong supporter of students selecting a “marketable major.”

Experts with the National Association of Colleges and Employers have identified several majors as the most likely to connect a recent graduate to ready employment: accounting, business administration, computer science, engineering and math.

The nation’s collegiate community is a functioning business entity which has not escaped the damage during the latest economic troubles, as evidenced by public colleges raising tuition faster than is being seen in increases put in place by private colleges, according to College Board sources.

The tradition of recruiting through college fair connections has never been more cost effective for the colleges and when it comes to consumers it is a very effective time management skill to employ in the average student’s search effort.

When planning to attend a college fair check with the local high school guidance counselor about electronic pre-registering services for the event in general and with schools of key interest to you.

College fairs offer students and parents opportunities of their choosing to get an initial look at colleges without having to invest much more initially than a couple hours dedicated to visiting a convention center where several hundred college admissions professionals await the chance to meet face to face with prospective students.

Bodnar urges parents to give children an honest idea about what they will contribute toward the college costs and what part children will have to provide if they go beyond the parent’s commitment.

“Perhaps the most important mathematical exercise your child will ever have to do, and the most widely neglected, is figure out how much it will cost to pay back his student loans” said Bodnar in a recent Kiplinger piece.

Two helpful sites custom designed to address college related financial questions for parents and students trying to wrestle with numbers influencing their college decisions she recommends are StudentLoans.gov and FinAid.org.

Among some of the “best values” for public colleges Kiplinger identified for its 2010 and 2011 listing were: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; University of Florida at Gainesville; University of Virginia at Charlottesville, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

Ranked at 38th for in-state students and 47th for out of state was The Ohio State University and at 77th for in-state students and 80th for out of state students was Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Several of the “best values” among private colleges Kiplinger evaluators identified were: Princeton University, Yale University, California Institute of Technology, Rice University, Duke, Harvard, Columbia university, Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Included in its top 100 picks among the private colleges, and coming in at a ranking of 79th was Franciscian University of Steubenville with a student per faculty rate of 15; a total cost per year of $28,570 and an average debt at graduation of just over $30,000.

Complete listings for the top 100 public and private colleges, as selected for 2010 and 2011 are available at www.kipinger.com

Loccisano can be reached at kloccisano@timesleaderonline.com