College Pays: The Million Dollar Decision

College Pays: The Million Dollar Decision

February marks the beginning of the college decision season for many North Carolina high school seniors. Applications that were submitted in the fall have been processed and acceptance letters have been mailed. Students are feverishly working on the final touches of scholarship essays. And parents and students are preparing to apply for financial aid.

At the end of this season, over 65% of North Carolina seniors will enroll in college resulting in North Carolina having one of the highest college going rates in the nation. But couldn't we do better? According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, over 80% of high school seniors report that they are going to attend college, yet only 65% actually enroll.

To assist with the million dollar decision, this Saturday, February 18 is FAFSA Day. At 42 sites across North Carolina, CFNC staff in partnership with financial aid counselors and college access professionals will help thousands of students and their families complete and submit their FAFSA at no cost. To locate the FAFSA Day location closest to you, visit www.CFNC.org.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that most parents and families overestimate the cost of college and know little about how to apply for financial aid. Compared to our neighboring states, North Carolina has managed to maintain affordable options for higher education and significantly increase the amount of need-based financial aid. Every high school graduate in North Carolina has access to a community college where the average cost of tuition and fees is $1300 a year. Yet, still many do not enroll.

The Census Bureau estimates that, over a lifetime, an adult with a bachelor's degree will earn over $1 million more than a high school graduate. What does it take to make the million dollar decision? First, students must apply to college. There IS a college that can be a good fit for every North Carolina student. Second, students must apply for financial aid. North Carolina college students received more than $1 billion in financial aid last year. Third, students must enroll in a community college or a four year institution and complete a degree. Students who complete a 2-year or 4-year degree will have more career options and opportunities than those that do not.

In 1976, high school graduates did not need a college degree to find high paying jobs in industries such as textiles and manufacturing. In 2006, it is a different story. In thirty years, the number of jobs requiring a college education has more than doubled from 28% to 60%.

North Carolina must respond to the changing economy by getting more people better educated. One of the first places to learn about educational opportunities is the College Foundation of North Carolina (www.CFNC.org). CFNC is a "one-stop shop" to help students learn how to plan, apply and pay for college. At this very moment, high school seniors are using www.CFNC.org to apply to college and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

North Carolina is fortunate to have a variety of pre-college support services for all students. The federally-funded TRIO and GEAR UP programs provide individual college planning assistance to more than 40,000 students from low income communities in grades 7 through 12. CFNC provides all students and families with the most comprehensive statewide college planning tools in the nation and is available free of charge.

There is no reason that we can't close the gap between those who want to attend college and those who actually do. One of the first steps is to complete the FAFSA form, and this Saturday is a great day to do it! I encourage students and their families to learn more about available student aid. It might just be the decision of a lifetime.

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