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Paying for college an education in itself for some Schenectady parents

Thursday, January 10, 2013
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— As Schenectady High School students begin to apply to colleges, one of their biggest worries isn’t academics, it’s finances.

Parents are suggesting Hudson Valley and Schenectady County community colleges, at least for the first two years, to reduce the cost of a bachelor’s degree. Students are watching the federal “occupation outlook” report to determine which majors will lead to jobs so they can be sure they can pay back their loans.

In the past, many students may have chosen to skip college altogether, certain that they could not afford it, school officials said.

But this year, the school district got a grant to hire a guidance counselor to focus solely on colleges and careers. That counselor, Celia Ganey, has focused on finances in an effort to show parents how to afford college.

She’s seen a huge response. This week, almost 200 parents attended a financial aid seminar to learn how to apply for scholarships, federal and state aid and loans. In previous years, fewer than 100 parents attended the annual financial aid seminar.

For more than two hours, parents asked detailed questions. Ganey was delighted.

High School Principal Diane Wilkinson said the meeting was essential to persuade students to go to college.

“We are a district that struggles with poverty,” she said. “Folks are struggling. Some of the mindset of our kids is, ‘it’s not an option — not a viable option.’”

And, Ganey added, the cost is particularly intimidating for parents who didn’t go to college. The forms and procedures can be confusing. But many of them came to the session understanding one cost-saver: completing the general-education requirements at a community college.

Wilkinson explained that many students won’t even need to go on to a four-year school. Many of the nanotech jobs here only require an associate’s degree, she said. “It ties into the affordable but realistic,” she said. “We are an area that is a hub for that technology.”

changing outlooks

Proving that college can be affordable can change parents’ mindsets, she added. But convincing the students may require a different approach.

Wilkinson hopes to get students to fall in love with the idea of college by talking with college students. Sophomores will visit the University at Albany for its College Exploration Day this year. And while part of the day will be practical — students will see the many majors they may not have otherwise considered — the real draw is the presenters. They’re all college students.

“It makes it real for our students,” Wilkinson said. “You get their feet on the ground on a college campus and it really broadens their lens. They think, ‘Hey, I can do this!’ ”

Under Ganey, the high school is also offering a new software program that allows students to research colleges, file applications, upload recommendation letters and handle other college-related tasks.

She was delighted by the reaction from students. Every college-bound senior is using it, she said, and most juniors are as well. Younger students are using the software for research.

The software also showed that students were looking at college from a pragmatic view.

“A lot of kids are looking at what jobs are on the rise, for job availability,” Ganey said.

Parents can use the software too, logging in from home. They seem to be focusing on cost, she said.

“I hear a lot of concerns about finances. I do hear a lot of parents talk to HVCC and SCCC as really good options for their kids,” Ganey said.

For those who are still worrying about the cost, there will be another financial aid session Feb. 26.

At that session, parents will get help from experts as they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Five financial aid representatives from The Sage Colleges will assist parents.

Registration in advance is required. The program runs from 1 to 5 p.m. in the commons at the high school. Parents can register for the session by calling the high school.

 
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