YOUNGSTOWN -- As students rely more heavily on student loans to pay for college tuition and other expenses, taking time to investigate options becomes especially important for families looking into secondary education.
"Parents and students can be smart consumers by researching," says Elaine Ruse, director of financial aid and scholarships at Youngstown State University.
The first thing to be aware of is that the term "financial aid" has a different meaning for families than it does for financial aid professionals, she said.
"Financial aid professionals define it as any assistance that helps students meet educational costs, and that includes grants, scholarships, work study, employment, veterans education benefits and student loans," Ruse said.
Financial aid a student is eligible to receive also must be stacked against the cost of the university, which varies.
Some research can be done while the student is a senior in high school.
"I think that students should take more time exploring all available scholarship opportunities, like through their high school, through local organizations, through company-sponsored programs," she said.
Another way for students to explore financial aid possibilities is the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which has to be submitted in order to be considered for state and federal aid eligibility.
"The FAFSA should be the first step to applying for financial aid because that information is sent to each college the student is considering, as well as the state agency, and determines whether a student has grant eligibility and provides the information that schools need to determine whether the student demonstrates financial need," Ruse said.
But don't stop trying if FAFSA says a student isn't eligible for a state or federal grant. Just because a student doesn't qualify to receive a Pell grant or Ohio College Opportunity Grant doesn't mean they don't demonstrate financial need. Many do," she said.
Jim Ritter, director of enrollment management and student services at Kent State Trumbull, said utilizing grants and scholarships first and using student loans as a last resort cuts back on a student's future debt.
"One thing students really need to keep in mind is when they're taking out a loan, they need to use the loan only for the essentials," he said, which include tuition, supplies and materials, and some cost-of-living expenses such as dormitory fees and transportation.
He also said students need to be aware of the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
Subsidized student loans are based on financial need; the interest that accrues on a subsidized loan is paid by the federal government until the student graduates. Unsubsidized student loans require the student to pay back all interest, which is deferred until six months after graduation.
"That interest starts accruing (on unsubsidized loans) from day one," Ritter said.
Ruse said students needing loans should take the time to look at all the different repayment options that are available now.
"There are many online tools available to help," she said, such as a net price calculator, which every institution is required to have and allows families to compare different institutions.
Although Ruse said financial aid available through state agencies and the federal government has been reduced, there are still many options to consider.
"If cost is a barrier, which I believe it is for many families, that is what it means to be a smart consumer when evaluating college choices," she said.