These are difficult times for parents needing help paying college tuition for their children or for displaced workers seeking better opportunities by returning to school.
Lump-sum tuition payments, or even securing a loan, can push that desired education into the realm of broken dreams.
But along with scholarships, grants and loans, another option seems to be taking hold — the tuition installment plan.
By paying a one-time fee, students or parents can sign up with some Kentucky colleges, universities and sometimes even private elementary and high schools, to pay a year's tuition, interest free, by the month.
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The idea truly appeals to me. I am the queen of "six months same as cash." Give me 12 months of interest-free possibilities, and I can buy a roomful of furniture or maybe a couple of computers — all while not paying an extra dime.
Same-as-cash payments are better than finding the Fountain of Youth.
Unfortunately, only a few schools in Kentucky participate in these tuition-management programs.
The three largest programs that schools use are SallieMae's TuitionPay Plan, Tuition Management Systems and FACTS Tuition Management. Each charges a set fee and sets up payments according to the school's preferences.
Bellarmine College, Centre College and Kentucky Wesleyan College subscribe to SallieMae, which is available at 2,500 schools nationwide.
Georgetown College, Campbellsville College, Thomas More College and Western Kentucky University subscribe to Tuition Management Services, which is available at 1,000 schools at all levels.
The colleges in the Kentucky Community and Technical College system chose FACTS, which has been in business for 20 years and serves about 5,000 schools.
The University of Kentucky doesn't offer installment payments, said Lynda George, director of financial aid. She said the idea has been looked at but has been rejected.
At UK, if all of the tuition can't be paid on time, officials will work with the student, and a fee is charged. But if full payment is not received by mid-term, the student will not be allowed to register for the next semester, George said.
Judy Bowell, cashier at Centre, said that school has accepted installment payments for about 10 years. Freshmen are limited to 10 monthly payments, and upperclassmen can go as high as 12. "It is very beneficial for a lot of people," she said. "Even people who can afford to pay by the term can keep their money in the bank and pay monthly."
Between 30 percent and 50 percent of Centre parents pay by installments, Bowell said.
If you can swing the payments, I think it is a great alternative to student or home-equity loans. But that is a big if.
If tuition is $4,000 a semester, four payments would be $1,000 a month. That's not an amount everyone can squeeze out of their budget.
Knowing that, some plans start as early as June, lengthening the number of payments and decreasing the monthly amount.
Or, according to Garvel Kindrick, vice president for enrollment at Georgetown College, financial-aid staffers can work up a mix of payment options.
"We will say, 'Do this much in payments and do this much in loans,'" Kindrick said.
Despite the slowed economy, there hasn't been a spike in the number of families choosing installments. However, Kindrick said there has been an increase in the number of students needing more tuition payment options available to them.
In the last 12 months, he said, Georgetown has been working more closely with families to make a college education possible, and he has noticed an increase in the number of loans taken out by parents.
The installments are "one arrow in the quiver," Kindrick said.
If the student can get a scholarship, work and save money, those payment plans can mean not only attending college, but graduating with little or no student or parent debt.
That's an exceptionally good arrow in the quiver.