The high cost of college is not lost on recent Syosset High School graduate Josh Lafazan—who just won a seat on the Syosset school board to become one of the youngest elected public officials in New York. In fact, it’s one reason he’s attending Nassau Community College’s honors program this fall, with the goal, he hopes, that he’ll benefit from NCC’s “proven history of transferring students to top four-year educational institutions.”
Some of Lafazan’s peers criticized his decision “because a lot of the people, especially from my area, are conditioned to think that going away to school is the only choice,” he says, but he’s comfortable with his pick because “this allows me to save the necessary funds for graduate school.” A full year at NCC costs about $4,000, compared to $59,000 at Columbia or Fordham, for example.
Nationwide the price tag of higher education has risen twice the rate of inflation since the year 2000. In his State of the Union address, President Obama, who was paying off his own student loans until just a few years ago, “put colleges on notice” that they should stop this trend in tuition hikes or risk losing federal support. There’s almost a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans, according to Forbes magazine, and the burden is not expected to ease given the recession.
Instead of increasing student aid, Congress cut $8 billion from the Pell grant program last year, putting more pressure on low-income students to borrow more money if they want to stay in school. If anything, New York State has also gotten stingier with its university students, shrinking state funding for SUNY by $1.4 billion since 2008, and raising tuition $300 this June, with more annual increases to come. Currently, attending a SUNY school costs about $22,000.
The U.S. Department of Education has two federal loan programs: The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program [Stafford loans] and the Federal Perkins Loan Program. The Direct Loan program is the simplest way for students to get a federal loan but their college has to participate in the program and not all institutions necessarily do.
New York has a Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), through the auspices of the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC), the state’s financial aid agency which administers 18 student aid programs including TAP.
As the state aid office says on its website, there are “no secret formulas” to determine how much aid a student may get, and the amount, based on the student’s financial need and expected family contribution, is the same “regardless of who completes the application.” The first step is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—the FAFSA—and the form is available at www.fafsa.org. [The FAFSA doesn’t require students to report their families’ retirement accounts as an asset, unlike the CSS/Financial AID Profile form that many private colleges rely on.]
Contrary to common myths, scholarships aren’t the exclusive right of “A” students—all students with good grades should pursue them because many scholarship committees rate community involvement and extracurricular activities, as well as merit, academic interests, essays, auditions, and particular skills and talents. Nor should students believe that there are secret sources of student aid. As the state warns, “there is simply no need to spend several hundred dollars for free information you can find yourself.”
College is expensive, no matter how you price it, but it may be worth the sacrifice, considering that the unemployment rate for those with no high school diploma was 14 percent last year, about 10 percent for those with a high school diploma, less than 5 percent for students with a bachelor’s degree, and 3.6 percent for those with a master’s.
“Do what works for you,” Lafazan advises Long Island students. “If that means going to Nassau Community College for two years and then transferring, if that means going to a local school and getting a job, do what works for you. Don’t worry what other people think!”