Raising a family and working full-time is no easy win. Between the hours of homework, the meals and chores, and the constant shuffle between work deadlines and afterschool activities, it’s hard for families to find extra time to connect. My husband and I knew we needed to change that.
While raising our two boys, we decided to start a youth flag football league that was flexible enough for working families, but still gave kids a fun and engaging environment to excel. We created Greater Lehigh Valley Athletics in 2013 and we soon became an Official Youth Football Development Partner of the National Football League. To date, we have more than 500 kids participating in our programs.
When I’m not helping families on the athletic fields, I’m working at Sallie Mae helping students and families plan for college and responsibly fund their education. Before working at Sallie Mae, I worked in the financial aid offices of two local colleges. You could say planning and paying for college has been part of my playbook since the beginning.
Although the thought of paying for college may seem overwhelming, I wanted to share my favorite tips, tricks, and resources to break it down in the easiest, and most relatable way possible — in flag football terms.
Come up with a game plan
Just like your favorite team comes up with a game plan before each of their games, you should do the same for your higher education journey. Start with: “How much can I set aside each month for a college savings fund?” or “What are my 529 colleges savings plan options?”
Research shows that 84% of families say creating a plan to pay for higher education is challenging, so if you’re having trouble, you’re certainly not alone. There are tools out there (like Sallie Mae’s College Planning Calculator) that helps students and families research college costs and assists them in building a customized plan to pay for college. You’ll want to keep track of the full cost of college, not just tuition, and potential scholarships, grants, and student loans.
Start training early
The old saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” can certainly apply to your paying-for-college plan. Start tackling college costs by taking Advanced Placement courses in high school. Successfully completing an AP course, and receiving a 3 or higher on the AP test, means earning college credits without paying any college tuition.
AP classes can also indirectly help students get into their top college choices by strengthening their transcript. Some high schools give extra weight to AP grades when calculating students’ GPAs, and AP classes also show admissions officers a student is ready for college-level schoolwork.
Don’t fumble the FAFSA
Completing and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the single most important thing you can do to get financial aid for college. Each year, the government sets aside money (last year it was $150 billion!) to help students pay for college or career school. Filling out the FAFSA is a crucial step to qualify for that federal aid — like grants (free $$$), college scholarships (also free $$$), work-study, and federal student loans.
The FAFSA application opens each year on Oct. 1. It’s super important to file it as soon as possible because some aid is awarded first-come, first served. Also, schools will use the FAFSA to put together financial packages, states use it to determine eligibility for state aid, and it’s required for a lot of scholarship applications.
Practice makes perfect. Make sure you fill out the FAFSA as a high school senior, every year in college, and even graduate school. Filing a new FAFSA each year in the only way to remain eligible for federal financial aid.
Score some scholarships
You don’t need to be the next Carson Wentz (Go Birds!) to get a scholarship for college. Scholarships are one of the most-used resources to cover college expenses, but plenty are left untapped. They’re not just for the star athlete or the perfect scholar. Whether your student is left-handed, willing to wear a duct tape dress to prom, or loves to skateboard, there are scholarships out there for them!
If your student needs help finding scholarships, check out Sallie Mae’s free Scholarship Search tool. Students can create a profile and the tool will match them with scholarships based on their skills, activities, and interests. It has access to more than 5 million college scholarships worth up to $24 billion!
And remember, watch out for trick plays! Make sure you never pay for scholarships and don’t get lured in by sites or organizations that charge a fee to access scholarship applications.
Just like I tell my kids, sometimes you need to call a timeout and ask for help. If you run into any confusion or hardship during your paying for college journey, don’t hesitate to ask for help. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to push you forward across the goal line along the way. Putting together a paying for college plan takes time and effort, but once you see your student walk across the stage and receive their diploma, it’ll all be worth it.