Guest column: Crossing the financial bridge to college and career | AspenTimes.com

Guest column: Crossing the financial bridge to college and career

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest Column

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

At this time of year, college weighs heavy on the minds of parents and high school students, especially seniors.

By now, most college-going seniors have some idea of what they'll be doing next year, but some have been waitlisted and others are waiting for financial aid determinations. It can be a stressful time. Some local seniors are blissfully unaware of the financial burdens that college can place on a family, but many other students either cannot afford a post-secondary education or face limited choices.

"The dream of going to college is very different than the cost," said Drew Adams, principal at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.

The good news for financially challenged students is the abundance of local and regional scholarships available — many of them targeted directly at those who need the monetary help most.

The Aspen Community Foundation alone administers a variety of local scholarships, and has actually granted more than $614,500 since 2000. Just this year, the foundation added three more scholarship funds, including one that supports students who will pursue trade and technical school degrees and certifications. We expect to grant an estimated $200,000 this spring to students in the Aspen-to-Parachute region.

And the foundation is just one player in this arena. Alpine Bank offers a variety of scholarships, as do service clubs such as Rotary and the Elks. Some of these programs target students in financial need, but others aim to help exceptionally talented kids, students pursuing certain kinds of degrees or students from certain schools or communities. There literally are dozens.

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Among the funds administered by our foundation, two specifically target students who are the first in their families to pursue a post-secondary education. Many of these applicants are the sons and daughters of locals who have worked all their adult lives in low-wage jobs. Were it not for this kind of financial help, the students might never consider college.

Currently, annual costs for tuition, room and board at an "affordable" state school range between $15,000 and $28,000. Even those who qualify for financial aid from the state, the federal government and the university itself can find themselves paying up to $18,000 per year.

The Pre-Collegiate Program, which pairs volunteer mentors with first-generation college aspirants in the Roaring Fork School District, has succeeded tremendously in graduating 100 percent of its students and sending 97 percent to college or university. The support these kids received — from the Pre-Collegiate Program, the scholarship committee and their mentors and college counselors — made all the difference.

Julie Goldstein of Basalt reviews applications and interviews applicants for the John Gold Pre-Collegiate Program Scholarship Fund at Aspen Community Foundation, which helps many of these first-generation students pay for a college education.

"A lot of them reference their parents' lives as being very difficult, and they were encouraged by their parents to pursue a better life by continuing their educations after high school," Goldstein said. "It's a really big deal for these students to attend college."

Despite the social and economic disparities that characterize the Roaring Fork Valley, opportunities abound for the less fortunate, and there's an authentic sense valleywide that we're all in this together. Scores of local schoolteachers, administrators and counselors work every day to keep students on a path to success after high school. Volunteers who mentor students and review scholarship applications represent another vital layer of support.

There's still much more work to be done. Our organization is working with local educators to put more college and career counselors in our high schools and provide additional guidance for students.

Until then, Roaring Fork High School Principal Adams urges parents to start early talking with their kids about their post-high school plans. Nowadays, Adams said, many forward-thinking freshmen create a "four-year plan" to reach the school of their choice.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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