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Navigating the college financing jungle

 

By MOLLY CALLAHAN

WESTSHORE – With the new school year dawning, high school and college students and their parents might be staring hopelessly at a FAFSA right now, wondering where to begin.

Good news: You can get help with the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online and at several places in the Westshore area. Better news: The help is free.

Citizens Bank, with branches in Bay Village, Fairview Park, Lakewood, Rocky River and Westlake, is the only bank in the country that can take a student loan application in the branch, said Melissa Bassett, senior vice president of strategy and sales for student lending.

Students and parents can get their financial aid questions answered at a branch even if they aren’t Citizens Bank customers, she said. Bankers offer guidance on filling out the application, but they can’t complete it for anyone. They also let people know the types of loans available, explain the pros and cons of seeking a loan in a student’s or parent’s name and tell them how to get the best interest rate.

A loan isn’t the first option discussed, however. “We start with the free money – scholarships, grants and federal aid,” Bassett said.

The bank’s website https://www.citizensbank.com/student-lending/overview.aspx  offers tips and advice about paying for college. It includes a glossary of terms, many of which Bassett acknowledged might sound like a different language to people unfamiliar with them. But entering the financial aid realm doesn’t have to be intimidating.

“The biggest problem (applicants have) is with their awareness of the process,” Bassett said, adding that the bankers explain and try to simplify that process.

Citizens Bank also has a Contact Center that takes calls seven days a week at 888-411-0266.

Two local colleges also can lend a hand with lending and financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back. Financial aid advisers at Cuyahoga Community College and Lorain County Community College primarily help current and prospective students, but their services also are available to the public.

Applicants should bring their Federal Student Aid ID, which they can establish at https://fafsa.ed.gov/, a copy of their own and/or their parents’ 2015 federal tax returns and W2 forms and any untaxed-income information, according to a flier promoting the workshops.

Students can take advantage of financial aid office extended hours this month and next, said Sarim Spetz, director of student financial aid and scholarships at both campuses. Those hours are 8:30-6:30 Monday and Tuesday and 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Corporate College West and 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday at Westshore.

Regular office hours at CCW are 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday. At Westshore they are 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday.

At Lorain County Community College in Elyria, the financial aid office is open 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday for walk-ins and people with appointments. Applicants should bring their 2015 returns, identification and their FAFSA login if they have one, said Karen Tijanich, manager of financial services.

LCCC isn’t having extended hours or workshops this summer, she said, noting that traffic in the office is steady all year.

“…We do loan counseling and offer financial literacy workshops throughout the year, Tijanich said. “We teach them how to be better at handling finances and academics.”

Some students and parents are confused about the new requirement that they use their 2015 tax returns rather than those from 2016 when applying for aid for the 2017-18 school year. The federal government made that change so that students whose parents filed an extension for 2016 don’t have to wait for their returns to be completed to apply for aid, Tri-C’s Spetz explained (Tri-C’s financial aid office also provides free help with completing tax returns, she said.)

Families whose incomes in 2016 were significantly lower than in 2015 should notify a Tri-C financial aid adviser, who can help them through the “special condition” application process, Spetz said.

“I highly encourage everyone to fill (the FAFSA) out, even if they think they might not qualify,” she said, noting that most students qualify for something. “They could get a grant, a scholarship (that isn’t needs-based) or a loan. And it’s free to do.”

Spetz also recommends students take the college’s free noncredit Cash Course. “They become more aware of their financial well being,” she said.

Tri-C also has a program called Project GO! for independent students. Offered through the Ohio Benefit Bank, Project GO! connects these students with resources including help paying for food, housing and utilities.

Students often misunderstand their dependency status, said LCCC’s Tijanich. According to the FAFSA website, to qualify as an independent student you must meet one of several criteria, including:

  • Born before Jan. 1, 1994
  • Married
  • A veteran
  • Homeless
  • Have at least one dependent

Note not for publication: There are other criteria, but the descriptions are very wordy, so I just listed these few and qualified the sentence above them with “including.”

Rocky River Municipal Court Judge Brian F. Hagan has dealt with the financial aid issue from two perspectives – as the father of three college students and as a sitting judge. In the latter role, he gives certain defendants a heads up.

When a young person is convicted of a minor misdemeanor drug offense, Hagan said, he asks whether they are receiving federal financial aid. If they are, he informs them they could lose it as a result of the conviction. Although the FAFSA addresses this issue, the news usually comes as a shock to the parents in the courtroom, he said.

The state-level drug offenses that apply are convictions for possessing or selling marijuana. A judge can’t revoke the aid, Hagan explained, but he wants defendants to know that the federal government can. As a parent, he is well aware of college costs and the impact of losing federal aid.

“A $150 ticket could equal $15,000,” Hagan said.

Federal financial aid recipients with questions about drug-related convictions can call

1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

Hagan applied for Parent Plus Loans every year from 2008 until 2016, when his youngest graduated, and said he never struggled with the paperwork.

“To me it wasn’t a bad experience,” he said. “The bad experience is having trouble paying.”

For anyone with a mortgage or any number of other expenses, financing a child’s college education “is extra debt incurred on parents,” Hagan said.

Now that all of his children have graduated and are working full time, he will refinance and consolidate those parent loans, shifting some of the burden to his children. Citizens Bank also offers help with that option, Bassett said.

 

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