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August 1999

[Education]

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Money finder

A local nonprofit helps students find funds for school

by S. M. Smith

If you want to go back to school for a master's degree but you're saddled with undergraduate student-loan payments, credit-card debt, and all the financial obligations that come with living on your own, financing graduate school may seem like an impossibility. Even those with little debt and excellent credit may find the prospect of paying for a degree daunting. But hope is at hand. Tucked away in the basement of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the Higher Education Information Center (HEIC) offers advice on how to ferret out less-than-obvious sources of school funding.

HEIC, a division of The Education Resources Institute (TERI), a national nonprofit student-lending organization, is funded by federal and state monies, local colleges, and the Boston public school system. Since its inception in 1984, the center has helped more than 70,000 students each year. Open seven days a week from October through May, and six days a week during the rest of the year, the center dispenses its priceless information for free. Most financial-assistance applications are due between January and March, so a visit to HEIC in the summer months is an opportunity to get a head start on next year's round of education financing.

Four full-time and 15 part-time counselors offer financial and career counseling for adults and assistance for families filling out financial-aid applications. "We wear so many hats," says center director Cynthia Hairston. "We are guidance counselors, administrators, financial-aid advisers, academic advisers -- and we are always doing advocacy."

Each counselor holds a degree, and between all its members, the staff is fluent in six languages. Hairston says 55 percent of the 2500 prospective students who came to the center last year ended up enrolling in diploma programs or college courses. Visitors come from all walks of life: welfare mothers, just-released convicts, doctoral candidates, and corporate managers hoping to double their incomes by getting MBAs.

One recent client at the center was an artistic woman in her 50s who needed an associate's degree to open her own business as an interior decorator. An HEIC counselor directed her to the Boston Architectural Center, which holds evening classes and offers degree programs. Another visitor, an undergraduate from Poland, had won a $10,000 scholarship to the University of Rochester in New York but needed help tracking down an additional $20,000 for tuition. A computerized search at the center yielded 10 possible funding leads.

For those merely thinking about a new career, the center offers the System of Interactive Guidance and Information (SIGI PLUS). This computerized database leads users through an assessment of work-related values, interests, and skills. It then suggests hundreds of potential occupations. The program will answer questions about given occupations and list their educational prerequisites. It assesses the user's potential and offers tips on financial aid, time management, and getting credit for job experience.

For most, though, the goal of using such programs is not "show me the way," but "show me the money."

Counselor Leah Kendall, who worked as a dormitory supervisor to help pay for her master's degree in student activities, advises students on the ins and outs of assistantships. Degree holders can go back to school for very little money if their job skills meet colleges' never-ending need for dormitory supervisors, student-activities directors, teachers, research assistants, and finance-office workers, she says.

Assistantships often include free tuition, housing, and a stipend. But, Kendall says, they are "very competitive," and they may not be the route for everyone. "It's a big lifestyle change," she says. "It's hard to give up that full-time paycheck -- going out to eat, going to movies, living in an apartment."

Another, more typical, way to fund an education is with grants, scholarships, and loans. And for that, the center has a database called the Fund Finder, which collects information on scholarships, loans, and internships from thousands of colleges across the country. Tara Smith, an arts major going into her third year at the University of Hartford, tried to find funding options through an Internet search and netted just three possibilities. A half-hour with Fund Finder, however, located 72 potential sources of tuition funds. These include a $5000 award from the National Alliance for Excellence Honored Scholars-Visual Arts, a $20,350 internship from the J. Paul Getty Trust, a $2250 internship from Walt Disney World, and loans of as much as $125,000 from the Connecticut Higher Education Supplemental Loan Authority. As a Connecticut resident, the young woman could also apply to the New England Board of Higher Education Regional Student Program, which has $30 million to spread out among 7000 applicants. And because Smith's father served in the US Navy, the computer also brings up a $2500 grant from the Navy Supply Corps Foundation and a $6000 grant from the Boston Tea Party Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

But Fund Finder is put together by the College Board, and it is top-heavy with grants for first-time college students. A hypothetical search for a 27-year-old graduate student with no particular disabilities or minority status brought up only four funding possibilities.

"If you're sitting on a scholarship committee, and you've got only one scholarship for two people, who are you going to give it to: the kid who already has a degree, or the one who has never been to college?" asks center counselor Cliff Wong.

"There is a lot less funding for scholarships and grants at the graduate level," says Ia Vang, the assistant director of financial aid at the Boston University School of Management. "Schools assist only 10 percent of graduate students, whereas they assist 60 percent of undergraduates."

In addition to helping students find grants and scholarships, HEIC will help students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the gateway to federal grants and loans for undergraduate and graduate students. FAFSA can secure an education loan of as much as $18,500 a year for graduates, with payments deferred until the completion of studies. The downside to FAFSA is that it's an eight-page fold-out application that looks appallingly like an income-tax form, and is just as complex to fill out. It's also need-based. Students younger than 24 with no children must include their parents' incomes on the application.

"The problem is inherent in the system," says Leah Kendall. "State and federal loans are based on previous income. If you work full-time, it looks like you must have socked away enough money to go back to school."

For the many who cannot afford to drop out of the work force to go back to school, Kendall recommends the "accelerated programs" at Boston University, Lesley College, Newbury College, Bunker Hill Community College, Pine Manor College, and Springfield College's satellite campus at the Boston YMCA.

These institutions schedule classes for all times of the day on Saturdays and Sundays, and as early as 7 a.m. on weekdays. In an accelerated program, students can earn nearly as many credits in a single weekend as they would normally earn in a semester. (A weekend student might spend 12 hours in the classroom as opposed to the 16 hours -- one hour per week for 16 weeks -- that a student taking a semester-long class puts in.) The time-saving advantages are clear, but no one from the center has done an in-depth cost comparison of accelerated programs and their longer, perhaps more intensive, counterparts. And so, says Hairston, students "might finish faster, but I'm not sure it's any more economical."

For would-be students who have plenty of money but not much time, the center also has a dozen reference books on distance-learning and online programs from hundreds of colleges across the country. Purdue University, for example, uses videotapes, conference calls, and electronic bulletin boards for a 36-credit master's program. The university charges $1200 per credit, but an applicant could pick up a prestigious degree in electrical engineering, industrial engineering, or mechanical engineering without leaving home.

The California Institute of Integrated Studies charges $30,000 for a distance-learning doctorate. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Teachers College at Columbia University, Skidmore College, Salve Regina University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology all offer distance-learning master's degrees for less than $20,000, though some have brief residency requirements.

Hairston says that some visitors are overwhelmed by the range of options they find at the center. The key to utilizing HEIC is to realize that it's an information center. It's not necessary to apply for every grant, scholarship, and loan you find. You can pick and choose from among the most appealing and likely ones. Of course, don't put all your eggs in one basket -- financial aid can be competitive. But the money is out there, and HEIC will help you find it.

To reach the Higher Education Information Center, call (800) 442-1171, visit the HEIC Web site at www.heic.org, or simply drop in at its offices in the basement of the Boston Public Library, 666 Boylston Street, Boston.

S.M. Smith is a writer living in Boston.

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