Event helps navigate ups, downs of financial aid

College Goal Sunday aims to keep students from being ensnared by high-interest college loans.

By Tom Marshall, Times Staff Writer
Published February 23, 2008

It's hard to get excited about filling out financial aid forms.

But state officials hope the promise of college, and the threat of mountains of ill-advised loans, will motivate students to get an early start this weekend on financing their education.

On Sunday, community colleges across the Tampa Bay region will open their doors for College Goal Sunday, a state-sponsored workshop designed to help students avoid the pitfalls that have burdened thousands of their peers with high-interest loans.

"We'll be actually helping them fill out those forms so they do qualify for need-based aid, without any strings attached," said Judith Bilsky, executive vice chancellor for the community college system.

It's not just for community college applicants, she said. Aid counselors will be on hand to help fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and other documents, even if students are headed for a four-year school or out of state.

The event is "to help get what they need in their hands before they get into a situation that's detrimental for them," Bilsky said.

Now in its third year, College Goal Sunday attracted about 4,600 students to community colleges across the state in 2007, said coordinator Amy Albee. The program was created in Indiana with funding from the Lilly Endowment, along with a three-year, $200,000 grant in Florida from the Lumina Foundation for Education.

What started as a sleepy ritual on the road to college has taken on new urgency this spring, a year after state and federal investigators began uncovering shady practices by lenders and dozens of colleges nationwide. Last May, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum launched an inquiry into potential unfair trade practices and consumer fraud.

Florida students in 2006 graduated from college with an average of $19,543 in student debt, close to the national average, according to the Project on Student Debt.

But some students left Florida colleges with far more. At Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, students graduated with an average debt of $32,500, while their peers at Nova Southeastern left with an average of $31,368.

Many incoming freshmen and their parents have no idea that some college loans are worse than others, said Marshall Koppel, director of guidance at Pinellas Park High School and vice president of the Florida School Counselor Association.

"How do you tell them to be wary as they navigate through the loans of the private sector?" he asked. "I tell them your government loans are always going to be a lower interest rate."

Counselors and college financial aid directors say students should pursue the "free money" in scholarships and grants first, including need-based federal Pell Grants, and then consider relatively inexpensive federal Stafford Loans, which are available regardless of financial need. Above all, students should try to avoid "private loans" that often charge credit card-like rates of 20 percent or more.

But that message is often lost on low-income families or those who remember a simpler time in college admissions. Students come home with loan applications and parents sign off, not realizing the level of debt they're incurring.

"When you talk about buyer beware, this is not a population that is easy to protect," said Madelyn Isaacs, president of the counselors' association and a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. "You have a somewhat predatory industry, you have for-profit schools with higher tuitions, some of which are not ethical."

Community college officials see the Sunday event as a chance to advertise their relatively low-cost offerings and their ability to help students obtain scholarships.

But if students just want to take the free help and advice on staying out of debt, that's okay too, said Katherine Johnson, president of Pasco-Hernando Community College.

"We aren't big proponents of loans," she said. "We tell students we don't care whether you're coming to PHCC. Here's the story on financial aid."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.

College Goal Sunday: Where to go

St. Petersburg College, 2 to 5 p.m.

-Epicenter, 13805 58th St. N, Largo

Hillsborough Community College, 2 to 5 p.m.

-Student Services Building, 4001 Tampa Bay Blvd., Tampa

-Public Services and Technology Building, 2001 14th St., Tampa

-Student Services Building, 10414 E Columbus Drive, Tampa

Pasco Hernando Community College, 2 to 4 p.m.

-10230 Ridge Road, New Port Richey

-36727 Blanton Road, Dade City

-11415 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Brooksville

What to bring

Social Security number or card; driver's license or alien registration card; 2007 income tax return (if completed), W-2 forms and other records of money earned; record of untaxed benefits like Social Security, welfare or veterans' benefits; 2007 bank statements, business and mortgage information, other evidence of assets or investments.

Financial aid tips

- Get free money first. Look for grants and scholarships before you assume debt, and don't be shy about asking financial aid staffers for help.

- Use lower-interest federal loans before you turn to other forms of debt. Some lenders may encourage you to take out private loans that aren't backed by the U.S. government, but they're typically more expensive than Stafford or Perkins loans.

- Know yourself. If you're unlikely to pay your bills on time every single month, seek loan discounts - for electronic payments or the waiving of origination and default fees - that don't disappear if you miss a payment.

- Ask questions and read the fine print. Make sure all the interest rates and benefits you've been promised are in writing, and find out what happens if you fall behind on payments.

- Beware of scholarship or loan offers that require an up-front payment, and ask a guidance counselor if you're not sure an offer is legitimate.

Sources: www.finaid.com, financial aid offices