By KAYE CAPLINGER WIDNEY

In these times of economic downturn, many students are asking if it is possible to beginor continuetheir pursuit of higher education. As director of financial aid and scholarships for West Virginia University, I understand this concern but encourage students and their parents to consider all available options. The investment in higher education is more important than ever to both students and our state as this country goes through an economic reshaping. In fact, historically, college attendance has increased during previous upheavals.

The staff members in the WVU Financial Aid Office, as well as those in similar offices at other schools, want to make sure that students and parents are informed about the opportunities for financial assistance through federal, state and institutional aid programs.

Some students and parents have the impression that student loans are more difficult to obtain since the economic downturn. This is not true across the board. Schools such as WVU , which participate in the federally insured Stafford Direct Student Loan program, have not had any disruption in the flow of funding to students. The same is true for Direct PLUS Loans that are specifically for parents of undergraduate students. With both loan types, repayment can be postponed until after the student is no longer enrolled in higher education. These federally insured Stafford student and parent loans offer interest rates that are better than those available through other credit-based educational loans from private sources.

The maximum award for Federal Pell Grants, available to our neediest students, is increasing by $619 for 2009-10 to $5,350. West Virginia residents who are Pell eligible and meet filing deadline dates may also receive the need-based, state-funded Higher Education Grant for an additional $3,000 annually.

Students who are in need of additional funds for related educational expenses may want to consider part-time employment; 15-20 hours of weekly employment for most students is not a detriment to academic success. In addition to Federal Work Study assignments available on many campuses, other opportunities for employment may exist through alternative funding sources both on campus and in the local area.

Options may also available for those who want to spread their payments over a period of time. Check with your schools bursar or office of student accounts. Options may include as few as two and as many as 12 payments during the academic year.

To move more quickly toward completing their degrees, students should consider taking more than 12 credit hours during a fall or spring semester. There is no extra tuition charge for those additional credits at many colleges.

Tuition tax credits can also provide financial relief outside of that normally thought of asfinancial aid.These credits are deducted from the amount of federal tax owed by the parent or student; Hope and Lifetime Learning Tax Credits have been expanded as a result of the recently passed economic stimulus bill.

Students whose families face unexpected circumstances (unemployment, separation/divorce or death of a wage earner) should contact the financial aid office at their schools. These circumstances will be reviewed and eligibility re-evaluated, possibly resulting in additional assistance. Summarize the situation in a written or electronic communication and provide that to the schools financial aid office for follow-up.

Even those students who need to resort to full-time employment can continue to go to school on a part-time basis or take online courses. Aid programs are available to many part-time students as well. If you are a student who is considering returning to school for retraining or to finish a degree, contact the financial aid office.

The well-known quote,There is nothing to fear, but fear itself,is relevant in this situation. Dont despair in these days of economic uncertainty as you consider higher education; it remains accessible and essential to your future. There are many ways to reach your educational goals, and we are here to help. _

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Kaye Caplinger Widney is director of financial aid and scholarships at West Virginia University.