Smart529

Related Resources

WVMentor.org: This user-friendly site is a great jumping-off point for West Virginia students preparing for college. It includes a college-choosing tool, a planning timeline for high school students, online college and aid applications and more.

West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission: Click on the “For Students” tab and you'll get a master list of just about every financial aid resource in the state, from scholarship and grant applications to the state treasurer's SMART529 College Savings Plan.

Other Resources

College Access: Select your state and you'll get a comprehensive list of college funding resources, including links to financial aid help and 529 savings programs specific to your state.

College Navigator: The federal government's interactive site helps you find the perfect college, based on criteria you set – including maximum tuition price.

Finaid.org: Try the many calculators on this site to help you determine everything -- from how much college is likely to cost, to whether you'd be better off to save or borrow the money.

Student Aid on the Web: The federal government recommends saving for college as early as possible. This site explains why.
 

High School Milestones

Preparing for College

 Graduation

Now that your child is in high school, college is right around the corner. Here are some tips to make the eventual transition to college easier.

Prior to your junior year:

  • Take honors and advanced placement classes.
  • Get involved in clubs, community service groups, athletics or other activities as soon as possible.
  • Attend college and career fairs.
  • Take the PSAT as a warm-up for the SATs.

During your junior year:

  • Make a list of possible colleges.
  • Start visiting college campuses.
  • Take the ACT and/or SAT exam.
  • Start researching scholarship and financial aid options.
  • Retake the ACT and/or SAT exam.
  • Narrow down your list of top college choices.
  • Get teachers to write recommendations to use in applications.
  • Begin filling out college applications.

During your senior year:

  • Meet with your guidance counselor to ensure that you are on track to graduate and have all the requirements to be accepted at your top choices.
  • Narrow your school choices down to top five.
  • Retake the ACT and/or SAT exam.
  • Make sure to have copies of submitted applications, financial aid forms, recommendations and transcripts ready for top choices.
  • If necessary, make a final visit to the campuses of your top choices.
  • Make your school decision.
  • Take AP exams for possible college credit.
  • Have your guidance counselor send final transcripts to chosen school.
  • Attend freshman orientation at the school of your choice.

Attending College on a Budget

College costs are rising—but it's still possible to get a meaningful degree without breaking the bank. Just ask Renée Conneway, a first-generation West Virginia college student who is one year away from a bachelor's degree in horticulture. So far, her education has been absolutely free.

“I haven't had to pay anything,” says Conneway, 20, of Hampshire County. “I haven't had to ask my parents for anything.”

It might seem as if a college education is getting further and further out of reach. College costs have doubled in the past 10 years in West Virginia, from an average of about $2,200 in-state tuition and fees per year at four-year public colleges to about $4,500 now, according to 2008 data from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

But with hard work and a little strategy, Conneway says, you can graduate debt-free. Here are several ways you can shave thousands of dollars off your college costs:

  • Save, don't borrow.
    Borrowing money for college can cost twice as much as saving it, according to the financial aid Web site Finaid.org. Here's an example: Say you save $200 a month for 10 years at a hypothetical 6.8 percent interest. You'll wind up with more than $34,000 for college. But if you borrow that money at the same interest rate, it will cost you nearly $400 a month for 10 years to pay it back. In addition, saving in a 529 college savings plan means your money grows income tax-free.
  • Earn college credit in high school.
    Community colleges often offer college classes at local high schools, which students can take in conjunction with their regular classes. Take advantage of them.

    “My final year of high school, I took care of a whole semester of college,” Conneway said. For example, she took high school English on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and college English on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “It was only $150 per [college] class,” she said. “That's super-cheap.”

    Thanks to those college credits she earned in high school, Conneway will earn her four-year degree in three years."
  • Consider community college—even if you want a four-year degree.
    General classes, such as freshman English, are always transferable from West Virginia's community colleges to its four-year public colleges, according to the West Virginia Community and Technical College System. And if you take that first year of general classes at a community college, you can cut your tuition bill by more than half.

    That's what Conneway did. She completed the first two years of her four-year degree at Potomac State College, a two-year school. Her credits will roll seamlessly into the horticulture program at West Virginia University. Because Conneway earned college credits in high school, she will need just one more year of classes to earn her bachelor's degree.
  • Consider a public college.
    You could pay half as much to attend a state four-year college in West Virginia as you would at a private college, according to data available at WVMentor.org. However, private colleges sometimes offer big financial aid packages. Check with the school's financial aid counselor.
  • Apply for scholarships and financial aid.
    Make sure you meet the deadline for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—usually March 1. That one form will put you in the running for needs-based federal grants such as the Pell and SEOG, as well as new grants for academic merit and for students studying math and science, plus low-interest federal student loans.

    Don't count entirely on federal aid, though. College costs are outpacing federal aid, which isn't even keeping up with inflation, according to a recent report from The College Board.

    States offer financial aid, too. Visit WVMentor.org for West Virginia's online application.

    Ask your high school guidance counselor about other sources of scholarships and financial aid. For example, Conneway participated in her high school's Gear Up and TRIO programs, federal student-enrichment programs that are usually offered in areas of low college attendance. Upon completing the programs, Conneway earned a $1,400 grant for college, Also, “they've paid for all of my books,” Conneway said. “That really helped.”

    Of course, the West Virginia PROMISE scholarship was the biggest help, Conneway said. PROMISE pays all tuition and fees at a West Virginia public college (or a similar amount toward a West Virginia private college) for high-achieving state high school students.
  •  Live at home.
    Tuition isn't the biggest cost of going to college—room and board is. Tuition and fees might cost you about $4,400 at a four-year college in West Virginia, but room and board will cost you another $6,150, on average.

    “A lot of our students take advantage of the ability to live at home,” said Rene Trezise, director of marketing and communications at Potomac State College. “By attending a college near their home, they're able to save money.”

    Consider your transportation costs, though. If living on campus means you can skip having a car, this might be the more cost-effective option.
  • Work.
    Conneway is earning $500 this year as student government vice president, which will help her pay for her car insurance and gas. She needs the car for her other part-time job: She's a landscaping supervisor at a resort near her hometown.

    Conneway's search for financial aid not only led her to the federal Gear Up program—it also led her toward her chosen career path.

    “Gear Up started when I was in seventh grade. They had a big party to hold a signup. I won a weed eater at this party,” she laughed. “It was pretty random, but I learned to use it. I did volunteer work with it, weed eating at nursing homes and things.”

    When she got her first job, landscaping at the resort, that skill came in handy.

    “I'm still with that job,” she said. “Eventually, I'd like to have my own business, maybe run a greenhouse. That's why I'm majoring in horticulture.”

_________________________

Renée Conneway is not an employee or affiliate of The Hartford. The views expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of The Hartford. They should not be construed as investment advice and are subject to change.

Updated 12/08/2015