Education in economics

Woodstock High School senior Alisha Soto (left) talks with school counselor Shannon Landwehr on Monday about scholarship opportunities inside her office at Woodstock High School.
Woodstock High School senior Alisha Soto (left) talks with school counselor Shannon Landwehr on Monday about scholarship opportunities inside her office at Woodstock High School.

WOODSTOCK – Alisha Soto knows what she’ll study next year and where she wants to go.

It’s the finances she doesn’t have figured out yet.

“I know I’m definitely going to have to take out student loans,” Soto said. “My mom’s going to try to help, but my mom’s a single mom with three kids. ... Hopefully that incentive will push for a little more financial aid.”

The 18-year-old senior at Woodstock High School isn’t alone in holding out for help. For the 2010-11 academic year, the annual cost for a year of undergraduate tuition, room and board was estimated at $13,600 at public institutions, $36,300 at private nonprofit institutions and $23,500 at private for-profit institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And with a job market still in recovery, many students are doing what they can to ease the financial burdens of higher education.

There are steps students can take to make up for thin pocketbooks, but they’ve got to kick the defeatist attitude, said Shannon Landwehr, Woodstock High School counselor. She recommends keeping an open mind and applying for a lot of scholarships.

“You have to be willing to do a little bit of investigating,” Landwehr said. “Don’t just assume you’re not going to get anything and not try.”

Soto said she spends as much as three hours many nights searching and applying for scholarships. Landwehr wishes that was the norm.

“There are some that we have, especially our local ones, that we get two kids to apply, which is sad,” she said. “And I think there are two things that factor in. I think it’s a misconception that, ‘I’m not going to get it anyway, so why bother.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to put the time in.’”

Landwehr also suggests filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid early.

Sometimes making direct contact with admissions counselors and expressing a further financial need can prompt an adjusted financial aid package, Landwehr said.

If financial aid isn’t there, sometimes it’s best to seek another school rather than take on smothering debt, said Lora Reinholz, a financial adviser and adjunct professor of financial planning at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

As a general rule, students shouldn’t borrow more money than they can expect to earn in their first year out of school or the average of their first five years out of school, Reinholz said.

“A number of them ... are not even paying attention,” she said. “They don’t know until they graduate how much they’ll have to pay on a monthly basis.”

Reinholz suggests charging very little to credit cards and avoiding credit card debt, which can add to an individual’s post-college financial woes.

And spend wisely, she said.

“Pay attention to the little things,” she said. “A good exercise for students is to put a notecard in their wallet and track all their spending in one week, see how many times they’re going for coffee or a quick lunch.”

Getting a steady job after college is the only way to ensure financial stability down the road.

Pam Cumpata, president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., said students need to do whatever it takes to set themselves up for those job prospects. She advocates for internships – even if they’re unpaid – and aggressively pursuing employers when the time comes.

Her daughter, Kristina Cumpata, is currently on the job hunt. She starts paying on her student loans this summer.

“Every day when I got home from work, I had a young lady sitting at my kitchen table who was either on a high because someone responded or slid to a low because she had applied how many times and heard nothing,” Pam Cumpata said.

Cumpata advises her daughter to be persistent. She tells family members of job hunters to be positive and a champion for their loved one’s efforts.

Reinholz said new graduates should look at the total compensation package – salary as well as benefits – before making a decision on where to work.

“The No. 1 thing for the first job is have the job where you’re going to be the happiest,” she said. “If you’re doing what you love, everything else is going to be easier.”

By the numbers

A look at average college costs for the 2012-13 academic year at a sampling of universities in Illinois. Amounts include estimated costs of tuition and other expenses, including room and board, fees, books and supplies and living expenses.

• Eastern Illinois University: $24,274.00 (in-state)

• Northern Illinois University: $19,811.20 (in-state)

• Northwestern University: $61,240

• Southern Illinois University: $24,435.00 (in-state)

• University of Chicago: $62,425

• University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: $29,002 to $33,922 (in-state)

Source: University websites

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