From the Desk of Victoria Juarez

The cost of postsecondary education and the burdens it places on students and their families have animated high-profile debates among policymakers and educators in recent years. Despite this, misconceptions surrounding financial aid for college remain prevalent. The implications for students and their families can be serious.

For instance, students often assume they are ineligible for financial aid by virtue of their family income or grades, and so temper their plans for college or rule it out entirely. The fact is, financial aid programs vary greatly, and many favor particular industries, backgrounds, or skills, in some cases irrespective of family income or exemplary academic achievement.

Similarly, many students confuse cost with affordability. A college or university that costs more but offers a larger financial aid package is often preferable to one costing less but offering a more modest aid package.

We often see this in relation to private schools, which can seem dramatically more expensive than state colleges or universities at first blush. Many of the former offer substantially larger financial aid packages, though. A school that costs $45,000 but offers $38,000 in financial aid is a far better deal than one costing $30,000 but with just $15,000 in financial aid, for instance.

Colleges and universities add to the confusion with financial aid offer letters that are in many cases bewildering. Studies have found that award letters often lack consistency and transparency when describing forms of aid. Some colleges even fail to draw sharp distinctions between loans and grants. Is it any wonder that financial aid misconceptions persist?

Closer to home, many north county residents mistakenly believe that the Scholarship Foundation does not offer assistance to students in Santa Maria and surrounding communities.

In fact, the Scholarship Foundation is a tremendous force for educational attainment in the north county. Last year, 58 percent of Foundation scholarships went to students in the Santa Maria Valley, Lompoc, and the Santa Ynez Valley, continuing trend that began several years ago.

To put that figure in perspective, we awarded a total of just more than $8.3 million to 2,620 students throughout Santa Barbara County in 2018. Of that cohort, north county awardees numbered 1,521 and collectively received a bit more than $4.8 million from the Scholarship Foundation.

The takeaway from all this: Do your homework, seek out knowledgeable professionals and other resources, and be bold in applying for financial aid. Never assume that you are ineligible for assistance or that a particular scholarship provider is not for you.

And if you are a current or aspiring college student anywhere in Santa Barbara County – including points north – please know that you have a powerful advocate in the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara.

Versions of this commentary have appeared in the Santa Maria Times and on Noozhawk.