By Laura Raines
Whether you’re investigating an independent school for your child or helping your teenager explore college options, one of your biggest challenges is likely figuring out how to pay for it.
With tuition steadily rising at colleges and independent K-12 schools across the country, more families need help paying for education. Fortunately, there are plenty of financial aid options, including scholarships and grants, that can help pay for your child’s college or K-12 education.
Scholarships for Independent Schools
While there are many great public school systems in the metro Atlanta area, many parents may wish to explore whether an independent school is the best fit for their child. There are roughly 2,000 independent schools in Georgia, and many offer some kind of need-based or merit-based financial aid. But not all of these programs are created equal.
“The amount of financial aid funding for students differs tremendously” from school to school, says David Fincher, president of Greater Atlanta Christian School.
Metro Atlanta independent schools like Woodward Academy and The Lovett School begin accepting financial aid applications in November or December for the following school year, with deadlines in February or March.
One increasingly popular source of funding is the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit program. Donors can receive a tax credit for every dollar they contribute to a student scholarship orgnization (SSO), which is authorized by the state to receive donations and disburse them in the form of scholarships to independent schools.
The program “has empowered more Georgia families to be able to choose private K-12 schools by removing some of the financial barriers,” says Lisa Kelly, president of the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program. In six years, she says, her SSO has awarded $88 million in scholarships to 30,000 students.
Parents of special needs children may benefit from the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (GSNS). Public school students on an Individualized Education Plan may be eligible to transfer to a better public or private institution and offset some of the costs with a scholarship that ranges from $2,500 to $13,500.
Grants may also be available through school alumni associations, foundations, religious denominations and other groups. The schools themselves are the best source of scholarship and grant information, says Mark Kantrowitz, a national expert on student financial aid and vice-president and publisher of Edvisors, a network of websites that offer educational resources for students and parents. Financial aid can be very competitive, he says, so it’s wise to apply early.
Financial Aid for College
While many college scholarships are awarded to athletes and academic stars, others are based on a student’s geographic location, ethnic background, religious affiliation, musical talent and even community service.
“You can’t receive money if you don’t apply,” says Nancy T. Beane, college counselor for The Westminster Schools. “Be proactive and don’t wait until the last minute. Scholarship deadlines are often earlier than college admission deadlines, so get serious about your search in your junior year.”
Your first stop should be your high school’s guidance office, which has resources and specialized knowledge of local and national scholarships. Civic organizations, churches and employers may also offer scholarships or grants. Even small awards can add up.
“Contact the financial aid office of each prospective college to ask about all of their needs-based and merit scholarships,” advises Jean P. Hague, an Atlanta-based independent college consultant. “They don’t always publicize every opportunity on their websites.”
The Georgia Student Finance Commission, a state agency that providesfinancial aid to Georgia students, hosts more than 1,500 information sessions at schools across the state each year, “to talk to parents and their high school and middle school students,” says president Tracy Ireland.
And then there’s Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship. HOPE, which is funded entirely by the Georgia Lottery for Education, has helped approximately 2 million academic achievers attend Georgia public colleges, paying out more than $7.2 billion in tuition, according to Ireland.
The HOPE Grant, a separate program from the HOPE Scholarship, helps pay for diploma and certificate programs at Georgia technical colleges. Another grant, the Georgia Tuition Equalization Grant, pays $350 per semester to qualified students enrolled in private Georgia colleges and universities.
While there is definitely money to be had for qualified applicants, Beane urges students to use caution. “Choose legitimate sites recommended by your counselor,” she says. “Beware of scams. Never pay for a scholarship match or give out personal financial information. There’s plenty of free information available.”
Online Resources For Independent Schools
For more information on scholarships and a list of SSOs, visit the Georgia Department of Education at www.gadoe.org.
The College Board