Expert explains how you can avoid college tuition turmoil - - Jackson, MS

Expert explains how you can avoid college tuition turmoil

JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Take one look at this year's tuition and fees at Mississippi colleges and universities, and you might think there's no way you can afford to send your child there. 

It's a struggle every family faces once their children get into high school.

"You want your kid to have the tools at his disposal to excel," said parent Smitty Smith. "It was also hard from the standpoint that those tools cost a good bit of money."

Smith's youngest son Drew is almost done with his first semester at Southern Miss, with most of his tuition paid by merit-based scholarships. Smith said Drew did most of the research, making a list of the possibilities.

"He had to apply for things that we weren't sure he would get," said Smith.

It's a story for many families that doesn't always have a happy ending.

Experts say so many parents and students don't know what to look for, when it comes to money for college. Many end up falling into the student loan trap, going into debt before their degree is even in their hands.

A recent New York Daily News article said student loan debt in America stands at about $1.2 trillions, much higher than the nation's credit card debt.

"The last thing I'd want to see is more families get into debt or not be able to send their kids to school because they'd think they couldn't," said parent and scholarship consultant Nancy Paul.

Paul embarked on that same journey with her three children, handpicking merit scholarships for them, finding those that fit her daughters.

"I spoke to a private college counselor and her high school counselor, neither of which were any help," said Paul said. "One hundred hours and so many sleepless nights and frustrations later, I ultimately found in private scholarships alone, $150,000."

For her three children combined, Paul found more than $600,000 in merit-based aid for which they qualified. Now, she helps counsel parents and students, for a fee, on how to find that kind of money for others.

Paul did not disclose those fees because she said it varies from student to student, because of how she customizes her scholarship hunting, looking for aid that fits that student specifically.

Whether or not someone gets their money's worth is a chance you take with any paid service. All this comes in a climate where tuition rates in Mississippi have climbed more than 11 percent since 2013.

Many universities also tack on extra costs, like requiring freshmen to live on campus and purchase meal plans.

"Once we got through the orientation process, everything seemed a bit more real, like we weren't actually having to eat an elephant," said Smith. "It wasn't going to be as bad as we thought."

Paul said the best way to win the most merit aid boils down to two things which can be best improved if the students are freshmen or sophomores in high school.

"Keep your GPA up and get your ACT and SAT scores as high as you can do it, because that is where a lot of this merit aid is decided," said Paul.

Since one's GPA is a four-year number, high school seniors are already stuck with what they have now. Paul said she encourages students to take the ACT and SAT multiple times to increase their chances of high scores.

Merit-based aid comes primarily from two sources: institutional and private. Institutional aid comes from the university, private aid comes from everywhere else.

At Millsaps College and Mississippi College, where tuition is some of the highest in the state, Paul says roughly four in ten students at those schools are using merit-based aid. The average student debt at those schools: more than $27,000, according to the Project on Student Debt.

"Those are both among the top schools in U.S. News and World Report of universities and colleges offering merit-based aid not tied to need, not tied to sports," added Paul.

In addition, Paul said Jackson State University counselors will even go back and look at students who qualify for merit aid, and help them get it, even if they haven't already filled out their financial aid paperwork.

"I don't know of any other school I've ever heard of that goes and does that for you, when they have a requirement and realizes, maybe families don't know, let's help them out, we have the funds, let's add some more scholarships," Paul said. "I think that's huge."

Lisa Smith said she knows a little about that, as a student at Mississippi College.

"I was fortunate enough to qualify for several merit-based (scholarships)," she said.

Smith is majoring in nursing and is a non-traditional student. She said she's proof that merit-based aid isn't just for recent high school grads.

"I know when people fall in the middle of that spectrum, there's a lot more work to be done to investigate those opportunities, said Smith. "They're out there. It just takes time and effort." 

And that's the real challenge, Paul said. When it comes to following through to obtain these scholarships, you've got to put in the hours to get your money.

“The truth is, no one owes our kids money for college, add Paul. "They have to do something to win it, deserve it, and whether doing that is getting a good SAT score and applying to schools that will appreciate that or going after a bunch of private scholarships."

Here are some resources for Jackson families looking for merit scholarships:

Jackson Public Schools Student Scholarship Resources

School Soup Mississippi Scholarships Page

Get to College Center Scholarships for Jackson Area Students

In addition, Get2College is an organization with locations in Jackson and other parts of Mississippi which reaches 30,000 students and parents per year through workshops in schools, churches and communities.

Those workshops cover all aspects of the college process.

You can find more information on this organization at the Get 2 College website.

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