College aid tips

Complete your income taxes and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form as soon as possible after the start of the calendar year.Fill in all 10 college choices on the form, regardless.Don't rule out schools based on tuition or other costs.Apply for as many grants and scholarships as possible.Avoid putting large amounts of money in the student's name.Don't pay for scholarship or grant searches.Student loans should be the last resort.

They shuffled into the Wando Performing Arts Center, some alone, some with their spouses. Others made their teens tag along.

Net assets

Some recommended websites for parents and students when applying for college aid:fafsa.govstudentaid.ed.govfasweb.comcollegegoalsc.orgcollegenet.com/mach25/sctuitiongrants.comstudentloans.govscstudentloan.org

It wasn't quite standing-room-only, but it was a fairly full house for a dreary Wednesday night.

“Y'all know how to pack 'em in. Y'all get a crowd down here,” Mike Fox said shortly before launching into his one-man act.

Equal parts funnyman and education evangelist, the Lexington resident was in Mount Pleasant last week to guide Wando High School parents as they tiptoe into the dark abyss of the college-aid labyrinth.

In addition to explaining the nuts and bolts, Fox delivered an uplifting message for lower-income parents or students who are too quick to rule out college, who think the road to a higher education is just too steep to climb, financially speaking.

“My soapbox is that every child can go to college,” he said.

Matter of degrees

A college education is practically a necessity for anyone hoping to compete for a top-paying job and to get ahead in today's ever-competitive and high-skilled working world.

The financial benefits are well-documented.

Workers with a college diploma on their resumes typically have higher earnings power. A four-year bachelor's degree, for example, can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income over the course of a career.

A college diploma also means more job security. The unemployment figure for degree holders 25 and older is under 4 percent. By contrast, nearly 7 percent of people who have some college or a two-year associate degree are out of work. The jobless rate climbs past 8 percent for high school graduates with no post-secondary schooling under their belt.

Fox set out to dispel some of the myths and shine light on the mysteries of the financial aid process.

An executive at the nonprofit S.C. Student Loan Corporation in Columbia, he spoke in part from personal experience, noting that he had three daughters in college at the same time. He also stressed that, despite his day job, he wasn't pitching any “LOANNNNNS!”

“We don't want no student loans,” the animated and self-described cheapskate told the audience. “We want the grants! We want the scholarships! We want the free money we don't have to pay back!”

He noted that it's nearly crunch time for parents of high school seniors. Come Jan. 1, they can start filling out a government form called FAFSA, a mouthful of an acronym that's short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“It's truly a snapshot of your financial situation,” Fox said.

This first step also is the most critical because it will generate a report with an important number in the upper right hand corner. The government calls this figure the “Expected Family Contribution” to a child's education.

“You don't know what you can afford until you go through the ... process,” Fox said

Parents who procrastinate do so at their own peril.

“Some forms of financial aid are on a first-come, first-served basis,” he said. “Get in line ... as fast as you can.”

Persistence is equally important.

“You have to apply and apply and apply some more,” he said.

That goes doubly for seniors, who should pursue all the free money they can get their hands on.

“Get on the Internet. Write the essays. Apply for the smaller scholarships. You might be surprised,” he said.

Assume nothing

Fox also warned it isn't scholarly to make off-the-cuff assumptions about the sometimes upside-down world of grants and other forms of college aid.

“The greater the need, the more ... you qualify for,” he said. “At an expensive school, you might qualify for more aid than at an inexpensive school.”

That went to the bigger point Fox was pitching to fretting parents last week.

“I don't want you assuming your children can't go to college because of money,” he said. “When you make those kinds of assumptions, things get messed up.”

Fox said far too many students abandon their dreams of a degree and stop trying as early as middle school based on one simple but disheartening fact: they're poor.

“Kids quit things. ... You know who they are,” he told the audience.

Spread the word, he urged.

And get busy.

“You can find the money,” Fox said. “It will happen.”

John McDermott will be filling out the FAFSA in January 2014. Contact him at 937-5572.