Written by U.S. Representative and former member of the Colorado State Board of Education Jared Polis
Nowadays, continuing your education after high school is more necessary than ever. Most employers expect you to have a certificate or degree.
But at the same time, pursuing a degree is more expensive than ever. It isn’t fair.
So, as a college student, what can you do?
First, use the resources that are available.
Look into your eligibility for federal financial aid. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year as early as possible. Many schools use the FAFSA to award different types of financial assistance, so even if you are denied federal financial aid, just completing the form can save you money in the long run.
In Congress, I’ve strived to make the application process easier, authoring the Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act. Pres. Obama eventually adopted many of the parts of my bill in practice. You can now fill out the FAFSA as early as October (as opposed to January), using your family’s income tax returns from two years prior. You can also access the application on your cell phone and link to the IRS’s data retrieval tool, so your information populates automatically.
Second, be aware of the kind of loans you are signing up for.
There are stark differences between private loans and federal student loans. For example, your interest rate on a federal student loan won’t change, so you always know what to expect. There are built in protections too, including more manageable repayment options, such as the Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs – as well as deferment and forbearance, if necessary.
In contrast, private loans are more like credit cards. Interest rates on private loans can accrue even before you graduate and spike as high as 18 percent. The one thing that will never change when it comes to private loans is that you’ll always be on the hook for a hefty bill. Private loans are not eligible for federal forgiveness, cancellation, or even repayment programs.
The bottom line is don’t sign up for a loan just because some lender is offering it. Many private lenders prey on students like you.
In Congress, I’m leading the Know Before You Owe Act, which would require schools to counsel students before you sign up for expensive, often unnecessary, private loans – and inform you of any unused federal student aid eligibility.
Third, create a budget, accounting for all your expenses.
As you know, the cost of college is way more than just tuition. Everything adds up – housing, food, utilities, transportation and parking, medical care, even football tickets …. and TEXTBOOKS! The cost of textbooks is shocking, a whopping $1,250 a year, on average. As many as 65 percent of students decide not to buy a textbook because of the cost.
The good news is more and more professors are using cheaper alternatives like open source, online textbooks.
In Congress, I’m pushing to even further expand access to free, high-quality textbooks with my Affordable College Textbook Act. The bill would create a grant program for more colleges to use open source books – textbooks that are available under an open license – allowing professors, students, researchers, and others to freely access the materials.
Last but not least, study, study, study!
Get the most out of your education. Make your investment count. Visiting campuses, I’ve learned from so many of you, and I want to know that your voice hasn’t gone unheard.
About Polis: Polis serves on the Committee on Education and the Workforce. He is the top-Democrat on the Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee and a member of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee. Polis has introduced several bipartisan higher education bills addressing access and affordability through open source textbooks and dual enrollment, among other proposals.
Polis is the former chair of the Colorado State Board of Education, and the founder and former superintendent of The New America School – a network of charter schools in several states serving new immigrants and English-language learners – as well as the Academy for Urban Learning for homeless and at-risk youth. The district he represents today includes Colorado State University and University of Colorado.