By Deanna McLafferty
The transition from high school to college can be a difficult one, not only for students but their families as well. In an effort to ease the adjustment, Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th District) hosted a student aid workshop at the South Brunswick Public Library on April 30.
Parents and students filled the library's conference room to learn how to receive the appropriate amount of federal and state aid. Holt told attendees via video message that in New Jersey along, approximately 215,000 students finance part of their education costs with federal Pell Grants.
"Now let's be clear: grants, tuition assistance and loans can help make college affordable, but in the end, it's up to you, the student, to make your college education a worthwhile investment," Holt said. "Through your efforts, the United States can and will out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world."
Holt invited Jean Rash, director of Rutgers University's Office of Financial Aid, Andre Maglione, acting director of client services for New Jersey's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), and Gabrielle Charette, executive director of HESAA, to the workshop. Rash explained that student aid comes in the form of scholarships, grants, loans and employment, and it is most often delegated to recipients based on an estimated family contribution (EFC).
An EFC signifies the amount of money that the government expects you or your family should be able to contribute toward your college education.
"Most families don't agree with that number," Rash said. "Most families think it is much too high."
Rash outlined a number of federal grants and loans designed to help families with the burden of the EFC and all college-related expenses. This year, there is more than $150 billion available in federal aid for students who qualify.
Federal grants include Pell grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants (FSEOG), which are awarded to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need. There are also Teacher Education Assistance for College and High Education (TEACH) grants, and Iraq and Afghanistan Service grants.
Federal loans programs include the Perkins Loan, Stafford Loan and Direct PLUS loans for parents. Many aid programs are need-based, and need is calculated by subtracting a family's EFC from the cost of attendance at a college or university. However, many programs, whether need-based or merit-based, are limited. For example, the maximum Pell Grant award for the 2012-13 school year is $5,550.
A Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form should be filled out for all students before every year of college to determine eligibility for various financial aid programs, loans and work-study. The forms are available every January of that school year and are due Oct. 1 for first-year students and June 1 for continuing undergraduates.
Rash advised parents to be prepared with their tax information as early as possible. She also warned attendees of scams in which people offer to fill out a FAFSAform in exchange for money.
"The form is not any more complicated than a 1040 [IRS tax form]," Rash said. "You don't need to pay anyone to do this on your behalf."
Following Rash's presentation, Maglione and Charette explained the many state-based aid options available to families of college-bound students. According to Charette, the New Jersey Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) is one of the most generous aid grants. One in three New Jersey undergraduates will receive part of $295 million to be given away this year.
"Unlike the Pell Grant, this really does reach into the middle class," she said.
In addition, Charette outlined the NJ STARS and NJ STARS II programs, awarded to students graduating from high school in the top 15 percent of their class.
In February, HESAA notified 15,000 high school seniors of their potential eligibility to receive five free semesters at the state's 19 community colleges.
In order to receive state aid, parents must send in a completed FAFSA form with four additional state requirements: driver's license number, earned income tax credits, Social Security benefits and veteran's benefits. Maglione emphasized the importance and rarity of state aid options.
"Not all states offer additional aid," he said. "New Jersey is one of a handful of states that does."
He took time to explain the New Jersey College Loan to Assist State Students (NJCLASS), a low-cost supplemental loan available to New Jersey residents attending any college as well as out-of-state students attending a New Jersey college. Maglione recommended that students and their families repay the loans within the 10- or 15- year payment plans and avoid the 20-year plan that allows for full deferral of payments while the student is in school.
"It's a good option if you really can't make payments, but it costs more money, and our job is to save you money," he said.
During his video message, Holt commented on the assistance that the government is ready to offer its ambitious residents.
"You will have to work hard both in the classroom and later in the work force, but our entire society stands ready to help you with the costs," he said.
Students and parents seeking help with the application process, repayment or loan consolidation can visit www.hesaa.org for more information. The South Brunswick Public Library also hosts a college section, in which visitors can find preparatory material and Web guides. For federal aid information, visit www.studentaid.ed.gov.