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College Affordability in Today’s Market Conditions

By Heather Sutcliffe, Citizens Bank

Paying for college has always been a daunting task for many parents, but today’s sluggish economy is likely making it seem even more overwhelming. My advice: Remain calm and focused. Families should continue to employ many tried and true best practices when it comes to financing a college education.


Always file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and do so early. Parents should never assume their son or daughter will not receive any financial aid. Filing a FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of the year school begins ensures a potential advantage because many types of aid are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Also, many states automatically consider students for state grants based on the information found in the FAFSA. Pay careful attention to ensure the FAFSA is accurate and complete, so it will not cause any unnecessary delays. For tips, click “here”

Do your homework

Families should research all available scholarship opportunities. Under no circumstance should a family pay a cost for such research, other than the time it takes to complete and submit scholarship applications. Citizens Bank's online search engine, powered by Petersons, is a nationwide database of need- and merit-based scholarships. According to Petersons, there are approximately 1.68 million awards totaling $7.69 billion annually!

Contact Financial Aid

Be in close contact with the financial aid office at your child’s school. They may have their own deadlines and procedures to follow, so ensure that you are on top of that angle as well.

Learn about Federal PLUS Loans

Though credit market conditions have reduced the number of student loan lenders, there is great coverage provided by the federal loan program. We have long touted the importance of exhausting eligibility for the federal loan program as the lowest cost option. The Department of Education recently increased loan limits for the Federal Stafford Loan, so freshman can borrow a maximum of $5,500 that first year of school. Further, through the Federal PLUS Loan, parents and graduate student borrowers can borrow up to the full cost of an education through this program.

Tips for PLUS Loan Borrowers

  • The credit criteria used for a PLUS Loan is less strict than that of alternative loans. Based on clean credit and not FICO score or debt-to-income ratios, a parent or graduate student can qualify for a PLUS loan up to the cost of attendance less other aid, even if they have a credit report with delinquencies (less than 90 days).
  • Borrowers can delay repayment, improving cash flow: Parents can postpone payments of principal should they need to in 12 month increments. Graduate students are automatically placed into an in-school deferment status as long as they remain enrolled at least half-time.
  • If PLUS applicants don’t pass the credit check, they are able to apply again using an endorser.  An endorser promises to repay the loan if the parent fails to do so.

Check your Credit Score

This brings up a good point: Today’s marketplace underscores the importance of good credit. It is important to understand your credit and you should check it annually by requesting a free credit report at www.AnnualCredit.Report.com. And remember, it is never too late to work on improving one’s credit score.
Throughout the whole financing process, it is important to remain focused and diligent. Though it can be a challenging project—and may take multiple financing pieces to cover one tuition bill—the most rewarding aspect is the student earning a valuable education that will improve the quality of their future.

Heather Sutcliffe, Vice President, Marketing
With Citizens Bank since 2000, Heather currently oversees all marketing and communication initiatives for the Education Finance Team. Prior to spending the past 9 years managing marketing projects within the student loan industry, Heather worked at Boston University coordinating programs of study for the Department of Sociology. A native of New Jersey, Heather earned a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Bentley College and a Master of Science in Mass Communication from Boston University.