The price of attending college is continuously increasing, but so is the value of obtaining a higher education diploma, Carol Lemons said.
Lemons works as an advisor for the Great Aspirations Program at Nelson County High School, which helps students with the oftentimes tricky process of receiving financial aid.
GRASP has been in the Nelson County school system for three years, and Lemons said she works with about 60 students each year who choose to make an appointment to see her.
Some students come once for information, others work with her for the rest year.
“I help students determine which schools will provide them with the best financial aid package by pointing them to tools such as the net price calculator on college websites that helps them calculate the total cost of attendance, and websites which help them estimate how much financial aid they could receive,” Lemons said.
In the beginning of each school year, Lemons visits the senior English and government classes to give a 10-minute overview of the financial aid process for attending college. She then tells students they can make an appointment with her in the guidance office of the school to discuss their plans further.
Lemons talks with students about deadlines for paperwork and filing out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
In January, February and March, she helps students and parents file FAFSA applications and find scholarships. The FAFSA form must be filled out before colleges give out awards.
“I think one of the big mistakes families make is deciding not to file a FAFSA assuming they will not be eligible for funds,” she said. “However, there are many different kinds of financial aid, including grants and scholarships, given by colleges.”
Some students don’t plan to attend college and are satisfied to begin working right after high school, Lemons said. However, she likes to point out to those students that there still are advantages of a college education.
“Sometimes we also discuss community college and vocational schools as ways of better preparing them for their futures,” she said. “I want them to consider all the options and not rule out college just because of the cost.”
Lemons said statistics show that college graduates still make more money over a lifetime than those who do not attend college.
“There is something to be said, too, for the subtle things you learn in college such as critical thinking, living on your own, life experience and a broader education,” she said. “However, the cost of college is rising sharply. That is one reason why community college is such an attractive option.”
Many students decide to attend two years of community college, then transfer to a four-year, in-state college if they have completed all required classes with a satisfactory grade point average. Lemons said the cost of community college is about one-third of what a Virginia four-year college would cost.
“The financial-aid picture is changing also,” she said. “I don’t like to see students and parents over-burdened with college debt. I have become a true believer in the community college option and the transfer program.”
Lemons recalled one student she helped a few years ago who did not want to overload her parents with debt and decided to attend Piedmont Virginia Community College. She recently transferred to the University of Virginia.
“I’m so proud of her,” Lemons said. “She set her goals and is meeting them. She also speaks for GRASP, which is also very gratifying.”
Lemons also facilitates the SOAR program in the school, which is a mentoring and savings program sponsored by the Virginia 529 Savings Plan.
Students become eligible when they are sophomores and have at least a 2.5 grade point average, complete community service and meet with Lemons on a regular basis during the school year.
The student can earn $500 each semester for their college savings. In his senior year, if he choose to attend a Virginia college, he can earn another $500, bringing his savings to $2,000.
“My first SOAR students are now seniors and all are on the path to college or some form of higher education,” Lemons said. “I am proud of them and look forward to seeing their future plans unfold. I think SOAR is a very effective way to encourage and help students continue their education after high school.”