PAYING YOUR WAY; Financial Aid for College Students Comes in Many Forms

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Byline: Lisa Rauschart, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

First the good news. You got into college. Now comes the hard part. How in the world are you going to pay for all this? Well, don't panic. Reports of skyrocketing college costs can be greatly exaggerated, and even the top-tier colleges, those with four-year costs approaching six figures, are ready to work with you to find scholarship funds, grant money or other awards that can help defray college costs.

While college tuition certainly has been increasing during the past few years, so, too, has the money available to help offset the rise. The problem comes with sifting through all the various ways of receiving it.

How much money will you get? That depends on a number of factors, including cost of attendance, the expected family contribution and special circumstances, such as a sudden decrease in family income.

Let's start with the language of financial aid. Today the terms "grant" or "scholarship" often are used interchangeably; both refer to a sum of money paid to the scholar without the necessity of repayment. Either one can be publicly or privately funded. Pell Grants, for example, are funded by the federal government. The Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Program (LEAP) is funded jointly by states and the federal government. The Coca-Cola Scholars Program is, of course, funded by Coca-Cola.

Then there are loans, awards and fellowships. Of the three, loans are generally the only form of funding that must be repaid. Awards and fellowships function in much the same way as scholarships. Scholarships, whatever the name, can be need-based, merit-based or a combination of the two.

How can you best meet your financial aid needs? By using a combination of sources, including available funding from businesses, labor unions, foundations, religious organizations, civic groups, and federal and state governments to help you put together a financial aid package. Most federal aid is need-based. Pell Grants, for example, range from $400 to $4,000, while Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) range from $100 to $4,000. Federal loan programs also are available, such as Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans, which require repayment.

Clearly, not all scholarships are created equal. Some are designed for high achievers. Others are targeted to students interested in a particular field, such as science, math or history. Still others are intended for students with a parent who works for a particular company or who has served in the military.

Have a hobby? So much the better. Many scholarships are designed to support someone who has a particular interest or skill. If you are a member of a particular religious, ethnic or other special interest group, there may be a scholarship out there for you. These include programs whose funds are earmarked for blacks, Italian Americans, German Americans and even Welsh Americans.

The Angelfire scholarship, for example, is administered by Datatel Scholars Foundation in Fairfax and provides funding for students who are the children of Vietnam veterans or who are themselves refugees from Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam. Applicants are required to write a personal essay, and award amounts are geared toward costs associated with the college the recipient plans to attend. The last day for online applications (www.datatel.com) is Jan. 31.

Do you live in the District? The D.C. College Access Act allows District residents to attend any public college or university anywhere in the country and receive in-state tuition rates. Students attending private colleges in the region or historically black colleges and universities anywhere in the country receive a $2,500 stipend.

If you are applying for some sort of federal student aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), available online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The deadline for the 2002-2003 FAFSA is midnight June 30, however, it is best to get your application in as early as possible. …