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Higher education or vocational training is an investment in a student’s future, but the cost of college today could cause even the most meticulous planner an extreme case of sticker shock.

Thankfully, there are a variety of options for funding college, including scholarships, financial aid in the form of grants and/or loans, and student employment, to help ease parents' panic attacks. The key is to start early and be resourceful.

A good place to start is the high school guidance office, which has a wealth of information on college funding and counselors available to help. The Munster High School website, for example, offers advice on where to begin, including options for financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

If a family meets certain income guidelines, the student may qualify for financial aid in the form of grants that don’t need to be repaid and student loans that, of course, do. The site mentions federal grants including the Pell Grant, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) and the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, in addition to the 21st Century Scholarship and the Frank O’Bannon Grant, offered by the State of Indiana. Each has income limits and caps on the amount of the award.

The 21st Century Scholarship is a needs- and performance-based program for Indiana residents who are U.S. citizens. According to its website, the program, introduced by the state in 1990, was intended to raise the educational aspirations of low- and moderate-income families and to ensure that all Indiana children have the tools to afford a college education. The first group of 21st Century Scholars began enrollment at Indiana colleges and universities in 1995.

Nona Mackey, school counselor at Thomas Edison Junior/Senior High School, Lake Station, said the 21st Century Scholarship allows students to earn up to four years of undergraduate tuition at any participating in-state public college or university. For those who attend a private college, the state will award an amount comparable to that of a four-year public college.

“If the student attends a trade school, two-year junior college or a participating for-profit school, the state will award a tuition scholarship equivalent to the cost of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana,” she said.

Mackey noted that students whose family income qualifies for the 21st Century Scholarship must begin the process in eighth grade.

“Each student is required to enroll by June 30 of their eighth-grade year; after that, they are ineligible,” she emphasized.

Students must graduate high school with a 2.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) and at least a Core 40 diploma which, according to the 21st Century Scholar website, “is the academic foundation all students need to succeed in college, apprenticeship programs, military training and the workforce.”

Beginning with their freshman year, students must complete three activities per year specified by the program until their graduation, Mackey said. These grade-specific activities include creating a graduation plan, participating in an extracurricular or service activity, taking a career interest assessment, obtaining workplace experience, visiting a college campus, searching for scholarships, estimating educational costs, watching videos on paying for college and college success, submitting a college application and filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

At Lake Central High School in St. John, the Naviance college search system works to help students assess their interests, find the college that best matches these parameters, obtain financial aid and determine career readiness via a single computer program. Acknowledging that the process of applying to school has changed over the years, guidance secretary Sherrie Bereda, said the Lake Central guidance department tries to help students navigate the complex process.

Mackey and Bereda cannot overemphasize the importance of filling out the FAFSA form by the April 15 deadline. Even if a student doesn’t qualify for financial aid, having information recorded with FAFSA will help in case circumstances change, such as the loss of employment by a parent.

“FAFSA is also a huge resource for federally endorsed scholarships, but you must fill out the FAFSA to gain access to them,” Mackey noted.

For Hammond residents, the College Bound scholarship program will provide eligible students with up to $10,500 per year toward tuition and fees at the accredited college or university of their choice. Per its website (collegebound.gohammond.com), eligibility is based on proof of Hammond residency including home purchase date, proof of homestead deduction and continued residency of the parents in Hammond until the student completes his/her fourth year of college. In addition, the FAFSA application must be completed and students must meet academic standards including GPA and standardized test scores, and then maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA in college, while taking at least 12 credit hours per semester and performing 40 hours of community service their freshman year.

Don't qualify for financial aid? Mackey said there are many scholarships offered by local and civic organizations, clubs, businesses, foundations and the student’s place of employment, as well as colleges and universities. Applying for more than one scholarship is a good idea; the more applications, the greater the chance of scoring funds.

For those living in Lake, Porter, Newton and Jasper Counties, the Jim and Betty Dye Scholarship can make a difference. The scholarships are awarded to high school seniors to recognize academic achievement, demonstrated leadership and future potential.

“We started awarding college scholarships in 1994; this is our 25th year,” said Jim Dye, founder of the James W. and Betty Dye Foundation. “We started helping students in Griffith and then expanded over the years. Now we get up to 400 applications per year.”

The merit-based scholarship is awarded to students based on their GPA, SAT/ACT scores, transcripts, in-school and out-of-school activities and an essay. Students who receive the $1,500 per semester scholarship must complete their college education in four years, take 15 credit hours each semester and maintain a B average.

“We started this to help local kids get a higher education and help build a great reputation for Northwest Indiana,” Dye explained. “We really get the cream of the crop.”

Students also can sign up to receive alerts from a plethora of websites that are virtual clearinghouses for scholarships, traditional and out-of-the-box. Sites will match students’ backgrounds, interests, achievements and grade point averages with scholarships for which they are most qualified to apply. For instance, a student with volunteer experience or someone who plays the tuba might have an edge when it comes to scholarship sponsors looking for those attributes. There are plenty of the unusual, too. A southpaw can apply for a scholarship offered to left-handed individuals but be aware that a specific requirement such as this often applies to a particular university.

No matter which Indiana institution your student plans to attend, remember that each hour of research could equal hundreds or even thousands of dollars in financial aid or scholarships that can reduce the burden of college costs.

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