A student's college career can be one of endless opportunities and experiences. However, for many families, the pride of their child's acceptance into an institute of higher education is mixed with the anxiety of wondering how they will pay for tuition and expenses. Financial aid professionals shared a few tips to help guide students and their families through the tumultuous waters of their investment in education.

Barbara Miller, director of financial aid at Stevenson University, said the most important tip she can give students is that they equip themselves with the information they need to file for financial aid correctly, whether it be through federal aid, grants or scholarships. This means being aware of each school and organization's requirements as far as deadlines and submission guidelines. For Miller, this kind of planning is essential for applying for both general admission and financial aid.

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"I think that probably the tips, the most important I would say is just being aware of all requirements and deadline dates, so you're aware of, as far as admissions, when are the applications for admission due, what do I need as far as that admissions application, are there other things required?" she said. "And the same goes for financial aid, what are the requirements ... what's required by the financial aid office as far deadlines."

Stephanie Southerland, program manager of the Office of Student Financial Assistance at the Maryland Higher Education Commission, agreed that being prepared with the correct information is vital. She said having the necessary information means taking the proper avenues to stay informed, whether that means looking on websites or conversing with a high school guidance counselor or college financial aid officer.

"I think mistakes can be avoided by paying a visit to your financial aid office to see what are the steps that you need to take to qualify for financial aid," she said. "If you are a high school student, certainly your guidance counselor might be a good point of contact in that process. They can perhaps guide you along. To avoid any mistakes, if you truly prefer one-on-one help ... certainly students should look into contacting their financial aid office … If you're more of a person who prefers an online resource you can certainly look into that."

Being aware of all necessary information also means avoiding misconceptions about how financial aid is awarded.

"I think it's really important that people have all the information so there aren't any surprises along the way," Miller said. "Financial aid doesn't always mean that it's going to cover everything — that's not the intent of financial aid — financial aid is meant to supplement what the family can afford … people are sometimes under the impression that everything is going to be taken care of and that's not true."

She also said it's important to factor in all costs associated with college, not just tuition.

"... A lot of times families will do whatever they can to get tuition money, whatever their balance might be, they get all of that together, but they haven't planned for books, and books are very expensive."

Starting the process early is also extremely important. Though both experts recommended that students start looking into financial aid during their junior year of high school, Miller said middle school would be a good time for parents to begin instilling an overall desire for a college education. Doing this, she said, will help students prepare as far as scholarships and grants and not be blindsided by the cost of the university they want to attend. They will also be able to plan for their own future and not be discouraged if their financial situation makes college seem out of reach.

"Look early for outside scholarships," Miller said. "These could be community organizations, houses of worship. A variety of places can offer scholarships to students, they're not always because of high academics, they can be because of leadership, community service, things like that … there are things that students and families can do early."

Both financial aid professionals recommend filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid regardless of their financial situation. Southerland said that even if students think they will be turned down for aid, they should still apply.

"Every school is different with how they handle financial aid," she said. "The assumption that you're not going to get any financial aid outside of something less desirable like a loan, it's not a fair assumption, and you just want to err on the side of 'just in case I'm considered for something else, let me complete the FAFSA' … It's better to have the FAFSA in already, so it never really hurts. If anything it helps, to just see where you stand, and if anything happens, there's at least a reference to go by."

Miller agreed that filling out the FAFSA offers a good back-up for students in case their financial situation changes.

"I've always been an advocate for filling it out," she said. "And one of the things that has always concerned me, if [a family is] not eligible for federal grants, and something happens during the year and they've opted not to use student loans and they've been in an emergency situation, and the student needs now to borrow money, if you've already done the FAFSA, the biggest part of it is done … you're not having to start the process maybe mid-semester when the emergency is maybe going on with the family … it's just kind of an insurance thing. If you decide you don't want to use it that's fine, but if you do, you've already done the leg work."

To make the process go as smoothly as possible, both experts agreed that families should use all the resources they have at their disposal. Southerland said that, in her experience, a great deal of anxiety associated with filing for aid of any kind stems from a lack of understanding of available resources.

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"I think that the financial aid process can seemingly be intimidating to a lot of students," she said. "I think that, this is solely my opinion, but particularly for some students who might be first generation college students whose family doesn't have a background in processes like this — that's just one example — that the process can be somewhat intimidating, but people aren't always aware that there are resources available to them to help guide them through the process."

At the end of the day, Miller said that with planning, preparation and strategy, college can be a reality, no matter how impossible it may seem.

"I believe that college is affordable," she said. "Maybe not all colleges are affordable, but college is affordable, and I've never wanted children to be told that they can't do it if it's economically feasible for them, because of money … The premise of college as a real positive thing can happen really early."

Reach Staff Writer Elaina Clarke at 410-857-3316 or elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.

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