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Want to go to college but not sure how to pay for it? Experts can help

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One of the best bargains in higher education is to start at a community college – while still in high school.

“I really wanted to go to college, but I did not have the money,” says Jessika Auguste, a 2014 graduate of Atlantic High School in Delray Beach. “When you go to the bookstore, everything is expensive. It’s $300 for a new edition of a chemistry book.”

She signed up for dual enrollment at Palm Beach State College and collected two scholarships — $300 and $200 — that helped pay for her textbooks.

The college offers several ways to attend college on a budget, including “Finish for Free” scholarships, says Tabatha McDonald, the college’s news and media relations coordinator.

To qualify, a student must be dual-enrolled in high school and Palm Beach State, earn 30 credit hours and maintain a 3.5 grade-point average before completing an associate of arts degree at the college. (High school sophomores can start taking college classes that count for both high school and college graduation.)

 “That’s why a lot of parents like to push dual enrollment, sometimes more so than the students,” says Robin Johnson-Blake, the college’s director of recruitment and dual enrollment.

Community college students who complete a two-year associate degree of arts or science with a 3.5 grade-point average are guaranteed admission to one of Florida’s 12 state universities to complete their bachelor’s degree. This is called the “2 + 2 Florida Plan,” which provides details at www.myfloridaprepaid.com.

“The parents who know this are the smarter ones,” McDonald says. “The students who are smart know they can take many of the same general courses [at a community college] in the first two years.”

Then they can enter a state university with no debt and can take advanced courses for professional degrees, such as medicine.

“Students who are smart can become a doctor, save money and have no debt in the first two years of college,” McDonald says.

Through dual enrollment, it’s possible to finish a two-year associate degree for free, or nearly free, she says.

Talk to your high school counselor and college financial-aid representatives about grants and scholarships you might qualify for, says Kimberly Richardson, one of the college’s student ambassadors, who explain college admissions to high school students at informal meetings.

How to finance your child’s college education

• If you can, start contributing to a Florida prepaid account when your child is an infant. Even if your account is small, it will help offset college expenses. Visit www.myfloridaprepaid.com or call 800-552-4723.

• “You have to be realistic about your family’s financial affairs,” Tabatha McDonald says. “Some parents say, ‘I’ll get a loan to pay for college,’ but every financial guru says you should not go into debt if you don’t have time to save for your retirement.”

• Many high schools offer free help and computer time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, says Machele Martin, guidance counselor at Pahokee High School. All you have to bring is your last year’s tax records.

• Dig deeper beyond a college’s home page. Cornell University, Florida International University and others seek out low-income, first-generation immigrants and other minorities to offer generous financial aid, says Phara Lissade-Latour, guidance coordinator at Village Academy in Delray Beach.

• Palm Beach State offers Debt-Free College Workshops. Visit http://www.palmbeachstate.edu or call 561-868-3330 for dates.

• Students from low-income families often can get certain application fees waived, Martin says. Check with your guidance counselor.

• Look for grants aimed at students from low-income families, McDonald says. Some examples include: Federal Pell Grants for students; federal work study programs for needy students who work part time; grants provided by colleges and universities; private scholarships from a wide variety of sources, such as sororities and civic groups; college savings plans such as Florida prepaid or 529 savings account; state financial aid, such as Bright Futures.

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