Tuition-Free Colleges: They Do Exist!

College_Students_TUNo that’s not a typo or misstatement. Did you know that more than a dozen colleges offer a four-year, tuition-free education? During difficult economic times, the cost of higher education leaves many students wondering if they can afford to go to college. For those who want to avoid being saddled with huge loans, these schools may provide a great alternative.

Miscellaneous expenses

Although the colleges don’t charge tuition, most charge for room and board and other incidental expenses such as books, supplies and equipment, transportation, health insurance, personal expenses and so on. Many require students to work and several are located in rural areas.

These colleges include:

Armed Forces colleges
The various Armed Forces colleges, including the U.S. Military Academy (West Point, NY), U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis, MD) and U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point, NY), do not charge any tuition.

It’s all about options
Students and parents concerned about how they’re going to pay for college might want to consider one of these tuition-free schools. Although there are not that many of them, they may be an attractive option for those looking to walk away from college debt-free or with minimum debt. 

Remember, knowledge is power!

*Click here to view the article source.


College Saving Secrets

college-savings-plansThese days, it’s probably a toss-up who’s more nervous about college: you or your child. Graduates leave school with an average of $26,600 in debt — but you don’t have to leverage your 401(k) if you want to contribute. All it takes is a little planning and help from your teen to cut costs and minimize loan payments.

Do Prep Work

Assess your retirement savings. Invest in yourself first: Start putting money into a 401(k) or Roth IRA before contributing to your child’s college bills. “You can’t take out a loan for your retirement,” says Carol Stack, coauthor of The Financial Aid Handbook. “And you don’t want to end up relying on your kids to support you.” Use an online calculator like the ones on our website to find out how much you should be setting aside each month. By keeping your savings goals on track, you may have more leeway to fund your child’s education.

Discuss your contribution. It’s not easy to talk about finances with your children, says Stack, but if your teen is counting on you to help pay for school, he or she has to know whether and how much you plan to give each year. First Financial provides a College Savings Calculator, along with many other financial calculators, than can be found hereYou’ll also want to check our blog post about the new standards for teaching your kids about money.

Save without budgeting. If you’re maxed out on what you can set aside for college, consider signing up for a rebate plan. Sallie Mae’s Upromise program offers as much as 8% back on your purchases, which can then be applied toward tuition. Before your teen enrolls in school, the rebates can be transferred into a 529 plan; after your child graduates, the reimbursements can be put toward loan payments. (Grandparents and other relatives can also sign up).

Have “the other talk.” Choosing a university requires thought and planning. Most teens don’t decide on their top colleges until junior or senior year of high school, says Scott Weingold, cofounder of College Planning Networking. Even then, many make choices based on where their friends are going. “Starting at the beginning of their sophomore year, talk to them about what their strengths and interests are and what they like to do,” he says. “College is obnoxiously expensive enough — now add on that it’s not uncommon for kids to take up to six years to graduate.” So get them thinking in advance about schools, majors and potential careers.

Win the Scholarship Game

Start early. Even if your teen is years away from college, they should apply for scholarships. “You’d be surprised how many there are for elementary school students,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Some examples are spelling, art and writing awards — not to mention a seriously lucrative $25,000 Jif prize for the most creative peanut butter sandwich. Find a list of possibilities at Some school assignments (like a science fair project or an essay) can even qualify.

Search online. College students earn an average of $2,800 in scholarships, according to one report, making it among the best ways they can save for school. “Every dollar they are awarded is a dollar less they have to borrow,” says Kantrowitz. The best sites include,, and  And don’t forget about the First Financial Foundation, we offer annual college scholarships to local students in Monmouth and Ocean Counties!

Here’s how your child can maximize their efforts:

  • Rule #1: Fill out the entire profile. Scholarship “matching” sites find awards for teens by asking them to complete detailed questionnaires about themselves. Answering all the questions, including the optional ones, says Kantrowitz, will yield more results.
  • Rule #2: Apply for (almost) everything. If a student isn’t eligible for a scholarship — let’s say, they just barely missed the GPA requirement — then they can skip it. Otherwise, your teen should pursue all potential matches, says Kantrowitz. “Many applications are essays that require personal statements. The first half dozen or so will be labor intensive, but after that kids can start recycling answers,” he says. Teens should set up a Google Calendar with due dates for all scholarships and make sure they’re aware of how much time they’ll need to complete the paperwork.
  • Rule #3: Beware of scams. The biggest red flag is being asked for an application or processing fee. “Legitimate providers want to give you money, not take it from you,” says Kantrowitz. “Never invest more than a postage stamp.” Also be wary of sites that ask for personal information, like a bank account or Social Security number.

Encourage community service. Schools aren’t the only organizations that value teens who volunteer. “It looks good to many scholarship providers too,” says Lauren Segal, CEO of Scholarship America. “And it can be the tipping point for winning.” Keep in mind that colleges like to see a history of service — not just a few stints started in junior year.

Go door to door. If they’ve exhausted paper and online searches, students can visit local organizations like the Rotary club, church groups and nearby businesses to ask about scholarships. You and your spouse should also check with your human resources departments: “I’m amazed at how many companies offer grants to the children of employees,” Segal says.

Keep your teen’s Facebook account appropriate. According to a new report, about one in four scholarship providers check their finalists’ online profiles. “Companies want to find students who reflect well on them,” says Kantrowitz. “They search for inappropriate behavior and offensive language, and even look at students’ natural writing style to see whether their parents probably wrote the essay for them.”

Strategize Your Search

Target a range of colleges. Include a few options that won’t leave your family or child with too much debt. “You don’t want your teen to fall in love with a school they can’t afford,” says Stack, who points out that the number of students defaulting on their loans within two years after graduation is now 9.1%. (One reason: It’s becoming harder for current graduates to find jobs). But you don’t necessarily have to rule out all private schools, which may have more money to offer than state ones, says Weingold. “Some colleges have generous aid-giving policies, so you never know what you’ll get until you apply,” he says. To estimate how much tuition and living expenses will come to — and to get an idea of how much assistance your family may receive — visit each college’s website and look for the “net price calculator”; all U.S. schools are now required to post one.

Barter for a better financial aid package. You don’t have to accept a college’s first offer, says Weingold. Call the school’s financial aid office and explain why your family still can’t afford the expenses. If your teen has received a better package from another university, write an appeal letter, including the offer, to her first-choice school, which may match it.

Cap your borrowing. Ideally, your child’s student debt shouldn’t be higher than their yearly starting salary, says Stack. The average income for college graduates is about $42,000 and varies depending on career; visit to see a range of salaries. Another strategy: Keep debt below $31,000, which is the maximum you can borrow over a four-year-period through federal Stafford loans. Unlike private loans, government ones have fixed interest rates and more safety nets, plus they offer some income-based repayment plans and loan forgiveness.

*Click here to view the article source. 

Financial Aid Seminar Summary

Recently at our Wall Office, Ken O’Connor, CU Student Loan’s Director of Student Advocacy, presented a Financial Aid Seminar – where he introduced ways in which parents and students can select a college and efficiently pay for it.

Ken noted that over time, the factors taken into consideration in the selection of a college have changed.

“Twenty years ago students would choose a school based upon their area of academic pursuit and the college’s reputation for a degree in that field,” he said. “The most important thing for them was the learning aspect. Nowadays, as more colleges adopt standardized curriculum, the value of what is learned versus the costs associated with the program are important to consider during the selection process. Thankfully, with the convenience of the internet, it is now easier than ever to compare costs!”

Ken went on explaining that a school’s location may leave a student with the decision of whether or not to commute. Living on campus is convenient, but commuting can reduce costs. Ken encouraged prospective students to take all this into consideration when selecting a college.

In addition to cost, students should think about what kind of environment they can succeed in. Some people prefer the fast-paced hustle and bustle of a city campus, while others prefer the quaint, small town feel of a rural college. Some students are unsure of what they like, so Ken encouraged students to start visiting colleges before their junior of high school to visualize and experience the campus.

Did you know that 50% of people transfer schools at some point during their college years? According to Ken, they do! During transfers, students can lose credits toward graduation depending on how many classes are counted at the new school.  Knowing what to look for in an institution and an education while searching for a school can help students zero in on the best option and successfully graduate, instead of having to transfer somewhere else.  That being said, many students plan their college education around an expected transfer.  They may attend a community college for their first two years, and transfer to a larger school to complete a four year degree, drastically cutting college costs. However a transfer is handled, a student’s goal should be to retain as many credits possible toward graduation.

Being familiar with the differences between State schools and Private schools can help you choose an appropriate college environment with affordable cost.

collegestudents-resized-600The Differences between State and Private Schools

State schools:
1. Are usually less expensive.
2. Will charge a higher tuition cost for out-of-state students.
3. May have much larger class sizes limiting individualized attention for students.
4. Getting admitted to your state school of choice may be more challenging than you think depending on how many students in your state are also applying, and depending on how many out of state students they are willing to admit.

Private schools:
1. Usually carry a much higher sticker price.
2. May award more scholarships and financial aid to help lower that sticker price for students.
3. Tend to have smaller enrollment and class sizes where professors can provide more attention to each student, justifying the higher costs.


“The financial aid application process can be a daunting task, especially when it’s being done for the first time,” Ken said. “However, the students that take ownership of their financial aid and bill pay process are students that can also take ownership of their education.”

There are differences between grants, loans, and scholarships. Ken encourages students and parents to make it a team effort when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“Getting students involved in the financial aid application helps develop the focus and discipline required to succeed in school.  It also makes it easier when they have to re-apply the next year,” Ken said.


Ken explained that although a handful of students are fortunate enough to be offered full scholarships, the majority have to cover a “tuition gap” – the remaining tuition due after taking into account grants and scholarships. This gap can be paid out-of-pocket or with a loan. Some loan options are considerably better than others, so it’s important to know the terms and conditions of repayment in order to select the loan that is the best fit for the needs of the student and their parents. Ken recommends choosing a loan that the student can start paying off while attending college and will not penalize the borrower for early repayment. He noted that sometimes the monthly payment can be as low as $25 and it will teach the student financial responsibility in addition to assisting in getting the loan paid off faster. “Making payments while in school not only knocks out the debt, but also builds a positive credit history,” Ken added.

Ken O’Connor is a 10 year veteran of higher-education finance who has served thousands of students and parents, each having their own specific financial and educational needs, during his career as a financial aid counselor. By assisting so many families, Ken has gained experience in creatively solving a multitude of the financial problems that arise with attending college.


College Funding for Non-Traditional and Adult College Students

ken-resized-600By Ken O’Connor, financial aid expert and Director of Student Advocacy for Fynanz (aka:

Going back to school is a big move for adult learners, and it is becoming more and more common.

During the past decade, the rise of non-traditional student attendance has changed the way colleges operate, with expanded class schedules, focused instruction delivery, acceptance of life and work experience as college credit, even child care options. Online college programs have also exploded with popularity, as they bring educational opportunities conveniently to a working adult’s home computer. However, during this same decade the cost of education has greatly increased, leading more students to rely on financial aid resources to help pay the bill.

Here are some key areas non-traditional and adult learners need to know before they commit to a degree program.

Your age and family status plays a direct role in determining eligibility for financial aid.

When filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) you must confirm your date of birth. If you are over the age of 24, the FAFSA determines the student to be independent, meaning they do not have to submit parent tax and asset information as part of the eligibility review for financial aid. It also means the student is eligible for increased Stafford loans, even more than if they were considered a dependent student.

  • First Year/freshman $9,500 ($3,500 subsidized/$6,000 unsubsidized)
  • Second Year/sophomores $10,500 ($4,500 subsidized/$6,000 unsubsidized)
  • Third Year and Beyond/juniors and seniors $12,500 ($5,500 subsidized/$7,000 unsubsidized)
  • Lifetime aggregate limit on Stafford loans is increased for independent students to $57,500.

However, as an independent student, if you are married, you must include your spouse’s income as part of the FAFSA. This includes all income and assets of the spouse, but also any dependents are considered when determining eligibility. Just make sure the information is accurately submitted.

Is this your first bachelor’s, second bachelor’s or a master’s degree/beyond?

diploma-resized-600There is major distinction between academic goals and financial aid eligibility. Students pursuing their first bachelor’s degree have access to the largest amount of financial aid through Pell grants, state grants and school backed grants and scholarships. If pursuing a second bachelor’s degree, financial aid eligibility is restricted to federal Stafford loans only, and rarely do schools provide additional grants and scholarships in such cases. Second bachelor’s degrees are very common for students pursuing nursing, as many times they completed a prior undergraduate degree, but are surprised when they learn that this second bachelors only qualifies for financial aid in the form of student loans. Graduate degree or Ph. D students only qualify for federal Stafford loans as well, but they are increased from $20,500 per year up to $40,500 per year.

Are you using any employer backed or state backed education benefit programs?

Many of the non-traditional students entering college today are seeking new and advanced training for job skills to help become more employable. Adult learners may be eligible for additional funding from several different resources. If currently employed, look for any education benefits from your human resource department. Workers that have been laid off may be eligible for tuition assistance from state backed programs. With college as expensive as it is, adult learners need to examine their payment options carefully. Qualifying for grants can make the right educational experience affordable. Educate yourself with a comprehensive report from the Lumina foundation on adult learners and the state based resources they can use to help pay for college: Adult Learning in Focus.

Spending money and getting results are two different things; look for schools that can serve you best.

dollar-resized-600There are many school options available, but finding the right fit can be challenging for non-traditional and adult students. The very name “non-traditional” denotes something out of the ordinary for these students, but in fact they are becoming more and more the standard. Schools are changing their class schedules and programs to better serve this growing cohort, but some do a better job than others. Before committing to a school and the costs associated with it, confirm if this is the right choice for you. Investing a lot of money towards a degree does not guarantee a job so use your resources wisely. Look at the results of other adult learners that have completed programs at schools you are considering. Was it worthwhile? This will help keep focus on what’s important to the adult learner, a results oriented education for career development.

Ken O’Connor is a 10 year veteran of higher-education finance, having served thousands of students and parents during his career as a financial aid counselor. Having assisted so many families, each having their own specific financial and educational needs, Ken has gained experience in creatively solving a multitude of the financial problems that arise with attending college. Now… Follow him on Twitter. 

*First Financial is not responsible for content listed on outside websites.

3 Tips to Prevent College Students from Getting Lost in Technology


3 Tips to Prevent College Students From Getting Lost in Technology

typewriter-resized-600In the 4th and final part of our Crash Course in Financial Aid series, Ken O’Connor, Director of Student Advocacy for Fynanz (aka: mentioned an important new factor within the college admissions process that hasn’t really been in existence until recently – technology.

“We are at the crossroads of technology in the college process,” he added.  “Many schools are converting to online paperwork services now,” he said.

3 of Ken’s tips to help prevent parents and students from getting lost in the technology transition:

1. Note how paperwork is handled – If you notice that the school requires excessive amounts of manually processed paperwork for registration, financial aid and academic records, start taking a second look at your school choices. In the modern age of technology, colleges are turning to improved solutions to settle mundane tasks like paying bills online and accessing student records through the school’s website. If your school is unable to do these things, you will continue to have a painful administrative experience all the way through graduation, O’Connor said.

2. File a FAFSA – Everyone needs to file a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). One important tip that many learn the hard way: when you are filling out the FAFSA online application, you are only going to want to use the “previous” and “next” buttons in the application to move back and forth between pages.  Using your browser’s forward and back buttons can cause you to lose all your data and consequently cause you to pull your hair out!

3. File a fifth FAFSA – Always file a fifth FAFSA during the winter of the college student’s senior year. Sometimes students may need to become a “super-senior” and complete a fifth year of college.  That could be quite the check to pay without financial aid if you assume your child will be done after four years of school, so it’s definitely worth your time and money to fill out the FAFSA just in case.

Ken O’Connor is a 10 year veteran of higher-education finance, having served thousands of students and parents during his career as a financial aid counselor. Having assisted so many families, each having their own specific financial and educational needs, Ken has gained experience in creatively solving a multitude of the financial problems that arise with attending college.


Why College Costs So Much – Info for College Students and Parents


Why College Costs So Much


If you are like many others, you are probably baffled as to why college is so expensive. Why exactly does it cost so much? Ken O’Connor, Director of Student Advocacy for Fynanz (aka:, named the following factors for college pricing:

1. Salaries for the educated: Education is, has been, and always will be a labor-intensive industry. This means that for every classroom of students, colleges still need someone to teach them. The heart and soul of the academic experience is found in the professors, and they are required to be compensated for their work accordingly.

2. Technology: You can’t stop progress! Judging by the huge molecular accelerator in a physics department, keeping up with progress isn’t exactly cheap. Learning instruments that the students love are mirrored in the giant tuition payments.

3. Facilities: You know that brand new, oversized athletic complex or rock climbing wall that enticed your child to choose his or her school? One way or another, facilities are paid for through the constant revenue stream of tuition dollars.

Ken O’Connor is a 10 year veteran of higher-education finance, having served thousands of students and parents during his career as a financial aid counselor. Having assisted so many families, each having their own specific financial and educational needs, Ken has gained experience in creatively solving a multitude of the financial problems that arise with attending college.