Adult-Students

These days, higher education and higher cost go hand in hand.

The reasons are many and complex, and reach to the end of World War II. College was primarily for the most promising students back then, or the elite whose parents could afford it. However, in 1944, the G.I. Bill of Rights was born, sending almost 8 million veterans to universities by 1951.

The pent-up demand could have made costs skyrocket, but it didn’t. In a booming postwar economy, most states put unprecedented amounts of dough into building bigger and better institutions. The federal government created loan programs to do for civilians what the G.I. Bill did for vets. Americans flocked to campuses. If you wanted a decent job, wisdom decreed you needed a college degree.

It was certainly true when I graduated from high school. When I declared I wasn’t going to apply to any Texas colleges, my parents grounded me until I filled out an application. I wound up in the University of Texas at Austin’s Plan II program, one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.

Back then, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total cost for tuition, room and board at public universities was about $1,500 a year for a full load of courses. This year, the average expense for the same at UT-Austin is around $20,000 annually for state residents, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

So how do you do it today? Grants, scholarships and work-study programs can help, but they’re not always available.

Enter federal student loans, which are big business — more than $1.23 trillion worth of outstanding debt existed as of late 2015. Nowadays, an average undergrad leaves school owing about $20,000. For an advanced degree, the number doubles to some $42,000.

“We are pricing the average family out of a college education in the state of Texas,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick railed last year – and for once I agreed with him. (Of course, the state has been steadily cutting money for higher education.) Yet by 2030, it’s estimated that 60 percent of all Texas high school grads will attend college – where you can bet state, federal and private loans will figure prominently in their plans.

To make it work, it’s best to start preparing for college costs as early as possible. More parents these days start saving when their kids are born. Understanding scholarships, and maximizing a child’s chance to get one, can take much research, but it can also pay big dividends. TuitionFundingSources.com, collegegrant.net/texas and mycollegeoptions.org are among places to start, along with direct information from colleges you might want to target. Then, check out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at fafsa.ed.gov. Unfortunately, a lot of families still skip this step and leave money on the table.

In San Antonio, consider the Alamo Colleges District. It’s a much less expensive option for the first two years, and the district’s Alamo Advise and Alamo Institutes programs help students design clearer paths to jobs or higher education.

However, educate yourself. There are still plenty of scams out there. Be careful if you see something advertised as “Obama student-loan forgiveness.”

Just researching the facts about student loans requires dedication and a certain degree of financial savvy. High school counselors and college advisers should be able to help. It seems to me every university should offer courses on student-loan repayment, because the fact is, if and when you graduate from college, you’ll do it wearing the most expensive article of clothing you’ll ever buy – a mortarboard.

syerkes@localcommunitynews.com

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