WHEN IT COMES to financing a college education, ignorance is anything but bliss. Fortunately, students and parents in need of help will find plenty of it out there -- if they look in the right places. Most high-school guidance offices, for example, maintain libraries loaded with information on college admissions and financial aid. Some, like T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, even have full-time scholarship and financial aid advisers. The key is planning, professionals say, and the earlier the better. So collect as much literature and other information as you can (that much is easy), tap the resources of the guidance-center library, and, above all, ask questions along the way.
Here are some other free or low-cost resources: Meeting College Costs. Families can use this booklet to familiarize themselves with the College Scholarship Service's Financial Aid Form (FAF) and to come up with a rough estimate of how much money they'll be expected to contribute toward educational expenses. Copies are free from College Board Publications, Box 886, New York, N.Y. 10101. The American College Testing Program, which publishes and processes the Family Financial Statement (FFS), offers a similar booklet. Copies of Applying for Financial Aid are free from ACT Publications, P.O. Box 168, Iowa City, Iowa 52243. The Student Guide: Five Federal Financial Aid Programs, 1987-88. This U.S. Department of Education pamphlet outlines Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, College Work-Study, Perkins Loans (National Direct Student Loans), and Guaranteed Student Loans/PLUS (Parent Loans for Undergraduate Study). An appendix lists state loan and aid sources. Copies are free from Federal Student Aid Programs, P.O. Box 84, Washington, D.C. 20044. (Questions about federal student aid programs also may be mailed to this address.) The Department of Education Hotline. The hotline is operated for students and parents who have questions about federal student aid programs. Calls (not collect, please) are accepted at (301) 984-4070 Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. The hotline staff is trained to answer some of the more complicated questions families face: how a step-parent's income and assets are treated on the financial aid application, for example, or how the expected family contribution is calculated in cases where parents are separated or divorced. Don't Miss Out -- The Ambitious Student's Guide to Scholarships and Loans. This little paperback is packed with the kind of no-nonsense advice that's worth its weight in financial aid, which may help explain why some 2 million copies have been sold. At $4.50 it's a bona fide bargain. If you can't find it in a library or bookstore -- the 12th edition will be out in September -- you can add a little for postage and order one directly from the publisher. Copies are $5.25 from Octameron Associates, P.O. Box 3437, Alexandria, Va. 22302.
Octameron publishes a half-dozen other first-rate guides to various aspects of financial aid, including merit (no-need) scholarships; federal grants and loans; cooperative education; and special scholarships in technical fields (engineering, math, science, computers, etc.). A list is free. The College Cost Book. This, the Bible of college costs, may be the best bet for comparison-shopping and bargain-hunting. It has the heft of the Yellow Pages, and is published annually by the College Scholarship Service, the financial aid division of the College Board. The book runs through the nuts and bolts in considerable depth, and lists expenses at more than 3,500 colleges and universities. Most libraries have it, and most bookstores carry it, but copies also can be ordered for $10.95 from College Board Publications, Box 886, New York, N.Y. 10101. The College Planning/Search Book is a similar handbook, published by The American College Testing Program. Copies are $6 from ACT Publications, P.O. Box 168, Iowa City, Iowa 52243. The College Financial Aid Emergency Kit. This pocket-sized handbook covers all the basics, and plenty in between. Copies are $4.50 ($3.50 plus $1 postage and handling) from College Student Financial Aid Services, Inc., 16220 S. Frederick Rd., Suite 208, Gaithersburg, Md. 20877. In addition to publishing several other brochures and a newsletter, CSFAS also owns the CASHE (Computer-Assisted Scholarships for Higher Education) system, an enormous data base of available grants, loans, and other forms of financial aid. Because many local school systems subscribe to the service, a computerized scholarship search may be as close as the guidance office. Need a Lift? This is the American Legion's enormously popular handbook on educational opportunities, careers, loans, scholarships, and student employment. Two sections -- one on sources of career information and another on financial aid for veterans and their dependents -- are particularly useful. Copies are $1 from The American Legion, National Emblem Sales, P.O. Box 1050, Indianapolis, Ind. 46206. Staying on Top of the Bottom Line -- A Guide to Managing College Expenses. Student loans have become a big profit center at many banks these days, which are aggressively competing for new business. Delaware's Marine Midland Bank is no exception, and it's recently published several snazzy booklets on financial aid and related matters. This 32-page guide, for example, has especially useful sections on budgeting and debt management. Copies of this booklet and two others -- Financial Aid 101: A Basic Course in the Grant and Loan Application Process, and Getting Started: An Introduction to College Financial Aid -- are free from: Marine Midland Bank, National Educational Lending Center, P.O. Box 8899, Wilmington, Del. 19899. College Cost Planner. This eight-page newsletter, whose mission is to cover "strategies for affording higher education," has recently reported on such matters as tuition prepayment plans, summer-job placement programs, and commercial education loans. Many high-school guidance offices subscribe (at $119 for 10 issues) and keep back issues in looseleaf binders, so that may be the first stop. Individuals, however, may subscribe for $29 a year if they use a home address. For details, write: Capitol Information Publishers, 2025 Eye St., N.W., Suite 105, Washington, D.C. 20006. How To Finance a College Education. Sooner or later, it was bound to happen: a videocassette presentation on the ins and outs of applying for financial aid. Kalman Chany, the founder and president of a New York-based financial aid consulting firm, walks families through the labyrinthine application process and discusses various money-saving options they should consider. Available for $39.95 plus $2.50 postage and handling from: Campus Consultants Inc., 338 East 67th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.