Affording college: Center counselors look to make it happen


In today’s world, the biggest question facing high school students many not be which college to go to, but is more likely how to pay for it. While they cannot guarantee that a dream school can be made affordable, the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority (RISLA) and their three College Planning Centers of Rhode Island are there to help navigate the world of financial aid, loans and basic college planning.

“The big thing has been the difficult economy over the past several years,” said Noel Simpson, deputy director and chief financial and compliance officer at RISLA, citing negative job growth and high unemployment rates as part of the problem with paying for college. “I think that has had a huge impact on students’ and parents’ decisions on where to go to college.”

Simpson also said it is taking longer for some graduates to get jobs in their field after graduation, making the ability to pay off student loans a struggle.

One positive Simpson does see is that individuals are starting to make better decisions as to where to get a higher education degree.

“We encourage students and parents to look for ways to save on tuition and other costs,” said Simpson, citing the option to take basic courses at the Community College of Rhode Island before pursuing their bachelor’s at a different university as one way students are attempting to lower the cost of tuition.

Despite rising costs, students are still looking for opportunities to fulfill higher education dreams. So as a result, Simpson sees an increase in the number of people looking for help navigating the financial aid system.

Counselors at the College Planning Center of Rhode Island at the Warwick Mall see the same thing.

“It’s getting harder and harder for families to pay for college,” said Solanchi Fernandez, a counselor at the Warwick Mall Center and the coordinator for the Center’s Diversity Coalition. “The [financial aid] packages from the schools don’t respond to tuition increase; even what they give is not enough.”

Fernandez pointed out that many families feel the formula to calculate the expected family contribution does not provide an accurate picture of what the family can truly afford to contribute each year. She also recalled a Pell Grant, awarded through FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], used to be enough to cover college tuition – now it barely makes a dent in most cases.

While Fernandez sees many students giving up on the “reach” schools and settling for safety schools or starting at community college and then moving on, she still sees a silver lining.

“But at least they are applying for post-secondary education,” she said.

As coordinator for the Diversity Coalition, Fernandez was chosen by RISLA to especially work with the Latino and other minority populations looking to attend college.

“RISLA found this was an important thing … Being out there and working, I find it’s the first generation applying to college,” explained Fernandez, adding that since many parents speak English as a second language, they have even more difficulty understanding the process. “Being able to have someone explain the process, and explain it in Spanish if necessary is important.”

Ellen Russo has been working at the Planning Center for six years, but has been working in financial aid since 1994.

“There has definitely been an increase in our client base since [I started],” said Russo, an educational counselor at the Warwick Mall Center.

She recalls when she started that students would be able to call and get an appointment within a few days; now they are often booked three weeks in advance.

She believes the increase can be attributed to a combination of more students looking to attend college because of the need for four-year degrees in the professional world and the downturn of the economy.

“Those who may not have needed financial aid before, need it now,” said Russo.

Paying for it

Simpson acknowledges that most students are initially concerned with choosing a college, considering many factors, including their ultimate goals, if the school is the right fit, etc. “And then the next question, after they make that decision, is how do I pay for it. That is what we are here to help them navigate through,” he said.

Erin DeMaggio has been with RISLA for nine years, and working as a counselor in the Center for four. She said the goal is to always get the message across to apply every year, even if you didn’t qualify the first time.

“Just fill it out and see what they qualify for,” said DeMaggio, speaking about FAFSA, as well as CSS for private schools.

DeMaggio added that if a second child enters college, that is taken into account.

“They may qualify for a little bit more [with two or more kids in college],” explained DeMaggio.

She also said that the Center’s counselors are available to help at any and all stages of the college entrance process. Counselors will make visits to high schools to explain the admission and financial aid basics to students. They can also arrange to have hour-long planning sessions with juniors to discuss making their application list and the beginning stages of financial planning.

“They come in very overwhelmed. We give advice and kind of a timeline,” said DeMaggio.

On average, DeMaggio says a student can come into a Center for three visits during the process, but they see some families up to five or six times.

One thing counselors will do is help to calculate the out-of-pocket cost owed when factoring in FAFSA and awards from the colleges.

“When there’s a gap, we talk about what options they have,” explained DeMaggio.

Sometimes that calculation serves as a wake-up call to just how much a dream school may cost, which is why counselors stress the importance of options.

“We encourage having schools on their list that are not only reaching and safety schools, but some safety schools where they can see themselves but can also afford,” said DeMaggio.

But the news isn’t all bad when it comes to paying for higher education.

According to Simpson, the most recent statistics for the Cohort Default Rates, the United States Department of Education’s measure of the number of student loan defaults, show that Rhode Island has a better average than the rest of the country in two-year and three-year rates.

“Here’s something we’re actually doing better than the rest of the country. The news isn’t all negative,” said Simpson.

Other positive news is Simpson has seen the increase in college costs slowing, with applications at public institutions remaining high.

“But there is still aid available at both the public and the private colleges. When we talk to students, we don’t discourage them from applying to what may appear to be a high-cost higher institution because in many instances, there are opportunities for financial aid,” pointed out Simpson.

Always apply for aid

Russo has one piece of advice when it comes to filing for financial aid: Always do it.

“Always file for financial aid, even if you think you won’t qualify,” said Russo.

Russo and the other counselors also express that they will never tell a student not to apply to their reach school, but they will encourage having more affordable alternatives.

“We tell everyone to apply for whatever school they want to apply for but have a couple of backup schools that are affordable,” said Russo. “The affordability has completely changed. Parents need to think about what they can afford.”

When it comes to taking out student loans, Russo says to stay away from a variable rate and try not to borrow more than the expected starting salary for your career path.

Simpson and his colleagues encourage students to apply for all scholarships and grants they can, even if the process can be exhausting.

“In many cases, there’s money out there that students and parents should pursue in looking to lower what they eventually have to pay out of pocket,” said Simpson. “Many of these scholarships are overlooked by parents and students.”

Simpson encourages students to search the following websites when it comes to finding ways to pay for college:

• www.rischolarships.

org: A website that maintains information on all local Rhode Island-based scholarships.

• The website for the College Planning Center, which students and parents can use to make an appointment with a counselor.

• The website for the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority provides information to their programs and services, as well as internship websites.

• This site matches college students looking for internships with potential employers.

Simpson encouraged students to take advantage of the Centers and getting help to complete the FAFSA forms. By doing so, students are automatically eligible for Rhode Island’s state grant program; Simpson also noted that students should be aware of any financial aid deadlines at the colleges they are applying to because FAFSA can help in that regard as well.

“It helps put them in the front of the line for need-based aid,” added Simpson.

Fernandez said the Center is a great resource for parents and students to take advantage of.

“Some parents are just overwhelmed by the process, the dates, everything,” she said.

Carmen Garcia of Warwick knows that from experience. Her son is in his second year of college and Garcia still attends the Center for assistance when filing the FAFSA form each year.

“It’s very nerve-wracking when you’re a first-timer; I found it very overwhelming at the beginning,” said Garcia.

She added that she found the assistance provided by the Center to be a good and trustworthy experience; she was going to attempt to file FAFSA forms on her own the second time but had such a great experience, she decided to continue using the Center.

Despite the assistance through FAFSA, her son, who is a sophomore at Bentley University, a private school in Massachusetts, still has loans taken out in his name that he will need to pay after graduation.

“It’s overwhelming, it’s expensive,” said Garcia. “Hopefully he will have a job when he graduates.”

Stephanie Ramirez, a current freshman at Roger Williams University, also understands the benefit of getting help from the Center.

“I wasn’t sure I could even go to college,” said Ramirez, a Providence native from a single-parent home.

But Ramirez is one of the lucky ones, receiving a full merit-based scholarship for her tuition and a Pell Grant through FAFSA to cover her room and board.

Although she is lucky enough to follow her dream to study construction management, Ramirez knows the cost of tuition is making that impossible for others.

“Some people put money first and not their dreams,” she said.

Because of the ease and helpfulness of working with the counselors in the Center, Ramirez and her mother plan to come back every year when they need to re-file the FAFSA forms.

Garcia advises those experiencing the financial aid jungle for the first time to start early.

“The sooner, the better,” she says. “Also, the more information you can get from people who have been through it is helpful.”

Garcia also says to save and look through all of the information provided by the schools and keep to a schedule to make sure all deadlines are made.

Ramirez gives the same advice, especially if one wants to take advantage of the help provided by the center.

“Come here as soon as you can,” she said, pointing out that the Center can be very crowded the closer one gets to deadline time.

The College Planning Center of Rhode Island has expanded hours at its three locations to meet the needs of families navigating the financial aid process. The Warwick Mall location will be open Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. The East Bay Office at 567 Metacom Avenue in Bristol will be open Monday through Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Thursdays and Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Northern RI Office at the Boys & Girls Club of Cumberland/Lincoln (1 James McKee Way, Cumberland) will be open Monday, Tuesday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Wednesday and Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. To schedule an appointment, call 736-3170, or book online at


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