MURRAY — Between the state soccer tournament this week and final exams and yearbook day next week, 18-year-old Andrew Nickerson has been a little too busy to worry about his first college semester next fall.
Nickerson, a Murray High student, is like many high school seniors tasked with planning for his soon-to-be college future while having his last high school hurrahs.
"I tried to get some scholarships, but there's still going to be a lot to cover," he said Tuesday. "I haven't thought about how I'm going to do that yet."
Higher education officials say there's still time for Nickerson and others in the class of 2011 to make necessary decisions about financial aid and their academic futures.
David Feitz, the executive director of the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, said it's not too late for graduating seniors to save up for tuition and apply for scholarships in addition to government grants and loans.
Feitz said the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a great tool that is oftentimes overlooked by teens and their families.
"Completing that FAFSA is the number one step that every student should start with," he said.
After filling out the FAFSA, students learn if they qualify for Pell Grants, which are needs-based federal grants that don't have to be paid back. The maximum Pell Grant amount is $5,550 per school year.
Olivia Ward, 18, will be working two part-time jobs this summer in order to save up for her first semester at Brigham Young University.
"It just hit me recently how close it is. It's a lot of money that you just have to lay down," Ward said.
Ward said she plans to help out her parents as much as she can with paying for her school so she can avoid taking out a student loan.
"They're an option, but it's the last resort," she said.
Feitz recommended students exhaust their scholarship and grant searches like Ward before relying on loans right out of the gate. He said getting a part-time job while going to school is a great idea to cover expenses so long as students don't end up working more than 15 or 20 hours a week.
"I wouldn't just jump automatically to a student loan without going through a pretty structured process," Feitz said. "I think we all agree that going into debt for any purpose is a serious matter. … You've got to borrow wisely so you don't get in over your head."
In addition to the logistical question of how to pay for college, planning a framework for an academic future is imperative, said Henry Eyring, advancement vice president at BYU-Idaho.
"You need to have that vision of what your career might look like before you start building your education," he said.
Eyring is the author of "Major Decisions: Taking Charge of Your College Education," and said graduating seniors need to make a very educated guess about what they want to study before they enter school in order to have direction for their studies.
"In all of your academic planning, you ought to make the best guess you can about what your life will look like after school," he said.
Nickerson, who will attend Utah State University, said he'll pursue either an accounting or marketing degree, but he hasn't worked out all the specifics. Ward said there are "too many options" but she plans to narrow down her interests over the summer.
Eyring said there are likely many young Mormon men in the class of 2011 who are trying to decide if they should go to college for a semester or work for a few months before leaving on an LDS mission. Eyring said whatever a young man and his family and church leaders decide, if he plans to pursue higher education when he returns home, he still needs to prepare for school before he leaves.
"Whether college comes before or after a mission, the preparations need to be made," Eyring said. "There needs to be a clear plan, an educational plan."
That plan includes identifying colleges of interest, taking entrance exams and obtaining application information before leaving on the two-year mission. Eyring said they need to make sure they and their family have an arrangement in place for submitting college applications while they're still out in the field.
Ward and Nickerson said they think they have a pretty good handle on their future plans, but for now, there are senior parties, drill team performances and soccer to think about. The rest will be addressed soon after graduation.
"I'm just soaking up the last few weeks of high school," Ward said.