Jackie Steffen separated from her husband and lost the family home to foreclosure just as her oldest daughter, Rhiannon, was applying to colleges. Steffen, who works as a legal secretary in Chicago, says that wiped out her savings and quashed any hopes of borrowing to pay her daughter's tuition bills. Yet Rhiannon is now a sophomore at $42,000-a-year Illinois Wesleyan University and will most likely graduate with less than $30,000 in debt.
More than 2 million families have lost their homes to foreclosure in the past two years. And economists warn that 3 million more families could lose their homes in the next couple of years. Many struggling parents fear that such financial difficulties may crush the college dreams of their children. But as the Steffens discovered, college is still possible if everyone in an extended family pitches in with wisdom, hard work, sacrifice—and some good luck.
"I think many of the families facing foreclosure today are hardworking, but with the accumulation of housing expenses and medical bills, they just get in too deep," Jackie Steffen says. "These families are not lazy. They are willing to make an effort to keep themselves afloat. I guess that's why I feel families facing foreclosure will eventually see their situation turn around for the positive. And I think that most students in college, or approaching college, are not looking for a free ride. They just want a little assistance, which I think is out there," she says.
Here are some of the hard lessons the Steffens learned about paying for college during hard times.
1. Keep close to family: Jackie Steffen's credit was ruined. She couldn't qualify for any kind of loan to help her daughter cover the gap between the aid and the cost of attendance. Luckily, Jackie had long had a good relationship with her parents. "My mom and dad are retired, and they are not rich," but they want their grandchildren to succeed, she says.
"Family is very important," Rhiannon agrees. Without the help of her family, she wouldn't be able to afford college, she says.
2. Students should take responsibility and action: In hard times, parents can't do it all. Jackie says it was important that her daughter request her grandparents' help cosigning an education loan, since it really was for Rhiannon. "It helps if the student initiates the request," she says. "She had to promise to pay it all back. It is her responsibility, ultimately." The experience taught Rhiannon that she and her family couldn't secure enough loans to pay for her school, so she was energized to apply for scholarships. It turned out to be "a lot easier to ask someone for a reference or help with a [scholarship application] essay than it is to get someone to lend you $40,000 to get through school," she says.
3. Apply to several different kinds of colleges: Rhiannon applied to a local in-state public university as a backup, as well as several private schools. But after counting up all her scholarships, it turned out to be no more expensive to attend her first-choice private school. Studies show that students who give themselves lots of college choices—including cheap in-state public universities and generous private schools—receive more financial aid than those who have limited choices.
4. Tell EVERYONE that you need help paying for college: Rhiannon's grandmother happened to mention to her accountant that her granddaughter needed scholarships. The accountant suggested she try a foundation whose finances he also happened to manage. Rhiannon did, and won $75,000 worth of scholarships from the foundation—enough to relieve her of most of her college debt worries. "I learned that scholarships and money opportunities could literally come from anywhere and end up meaning the world," Rhiannon says.
5. Communicate with your school's financial aid office: After she figured out how much it would cost to go to each school she got into, Rhiannon wrote a letter to her first choice, IWU, explaining the family situation and asking for more aid. IWU boosted her aid. Students "shouldn't be afraid to be aggressive" about explaining their true needs to a college, Rhiannon says.