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Centenary University financial aid counselor: Six things high school seniors should do before choosing a college

Seasoned financial aid pro offers tips to help prospective college students and their parents assess college choices and maximize opportunities for financial assistance.

HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County)  — With the start of the school year, it’s time for high school seniors to finalize their college search.

Your dream school may have a well-known name, great campus, nationally-ranked sports, and active social scene—but can you afford to spend four years there? That’s a question that Jerard Tyler, a financial aid counselor at Centenary University in Hackettstown, NJ, says should be top-of-mind for high school seniors and their parents.

“This is an exciting time for high school seniors and their families,” says Tyler. “However, if they’re not careful, they can make mistakes that affect their long-term financial future.” Tyler draws from his personal experiences in advising students who are considering Centenary University. As an undergraduate, he diligently sought out scholarships and other financial assistance, thanks to one-on-one guidance from financial aid professionals at his college.

Here are six things Tyler says high school seniors and their families should do right now to set themselves up for a financially secure college experience:

  1. Learn the lingo. Log onto, even if you’re not yet ready to file your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This site has all kinds of articles and tips on how to put together an aid package that meets your family’s needs. It also provides deadlines for filing. New Jersey residents should keep in mind that deadlines to file for state aid differ from those for federal aid. “At first, financial aid can seem alarming for some families,” Tyler explains. “This site has lots of articles that explain the process well, in addition to tips on navigating the system. Read through everything so you understand all of the terms and deadlines. The articles are there to help.”
  2. Add up the cost. While you’re on, look up the total cost for each college on your list. That includes tuition, room and board, books, supplies, and other student fees. Also, consider your travel costs to get to campus. Tyler says, “I talk to a lot of students who don’t understand the total cost of attending their top choice schools. They just like the school—maybe a celebrity went there or it’s known nationally. But you need to start thinking about how you’ll afford that college. The website provides lots of good info and breaks down the awards and scholarships available at each school.”
  3. Have an honest conversation. “Now is the time to have that one-on-one conversation about finances with your parents,” Tyler advises. “As a senior, you’re excited to leave home, but you need to have these really raw conversations and ask some important questions: ‘Can we afford the tuition? Will I need to take out student loans? If so, how long will I be paying them back? If the college is far away, do we have the money for me to come home for Thanksgiving or spring break—especially if the dorms close over the holidays?’”
  4. Seek out scholarships. Your high school and community civic organizations are good places to start, but that’s just the beginning. Tyler also recommends creating an account on a site like, which he tapped extensively for scholarship leads as an undergraduate: “There are a lot of opportunities out there, but you’ve got to be willing to put in the work. As an undergraduate, I wrote so many essays telling why I deserved particular scholarships—and I got a lot of them. It might be time-consuming to do a two-page paper about yourself, but it’s worth it.”
  5. Consider loans—but carefully. Loans can be a big help in meeting college expenses not covered by government aid or scholarships, but don’t bite off more than you can comfortably pay off after graduation. Tyler favors federal student loans over those offered by private firms, which typically carry higher interest rates. He points out, “Loans can take a big toll on your life after graduation. When prospective students mention private loans, I’ll first tell them, ‘Let’s go back and talk about scholarships and grants that you don’t have to pay back.’ But often, you will need to take out loans—if you need them, you need them. I break down student loans very thoroughly when talking to students because that will be their responsibility to pay back, even if the parents say they’ll cover it. Loans are in the student’s name and anything can happen. ” When planning how much you’ll have to pay back, remember to multiply your loan(s) by four to cover each year you’ll be enrolled. Tyler also offers a tip for when the bill comes due: “Right now, plan to use your tax refunds to make extra payments. Once your loan(s) are in repayment, try to pay them off early. Just check to make sure there are no penalties for early payment.”
  6. Find a financial aid ally. Chances are good that you’ll need financial aid advice all through college, so look for a school with an open door policy where you can build a good rapport with your financial aid counselor. “Small universities like Centenary tend to have that one-on-one aspect that’s missing at larger schools,” Tyler says. “When a family gets an award package that they don’t understand, those are my favorite calls. I can break it down by semester so it’s as easy as possible to understand. I tell students, ‘If you’re accepted to Centenary, I will personally try my best to guide you from freshman year to senior year. My role is to provide as much opportunity as I can with financial aid so you can stay in school. I want to see you graduate.’”

Jay Edwards

Born and raised in Northwest NJ, Jay has a degree in Communications and has had a life-long interest in local radio and various styles of music. Jay has held numerous jobs over the years such as stunt car driver, bartender, voice-over artist, traffic reporter (award winning), NY Yankee maintenance crewmember and peanut farm worker. His hobbies include mountain climbing, snowmobiling, cooking, performing stand-up comedy and he is an avid squirrel watcher. Jay has been a guest on America’s Morning Headquarters,program on The Weather Channel, and was interviewed by Sam Champion.

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