It's a penny-pinching life

Best give up the caviar if you're going to college. Abigail Montrose looks at grant entitlement
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The Independent Online
Cheers or tears, at least the waiting is over. A-level results dropped on to doormats all over the country last week, settling the fate of many university and college hopefuls.

Those who got the necessary grades now know where they will be off to in the autumn term, while others are still scouring the vacancy lists in the Independent and working their way through the clearing process.

Most students apply for a grant at the same time as they apply for a place in higher education. The best advice here is that as soon as you have been accepted, you should contact the local authority and tell them which college you will be attending.

Don't be afraid to chase the town hall; it can often speed up the process of getting the grant, according to the Department for Education and Employment. "By the time students start term, their grant cheque should be waiting," a spokesperson says.

The maximum maintenance grant available for the 1996-97 academic year for students studying in London is pounds 2,105; for students outside London it is pounds 1,710. The highest award for students living at their parents' home is pounds 1,400.

Many students receive less than this, once their parents' income has been assessed. While there is no law that says parents have to contribute towards their children's grants, the local authority assumes parents make up the money to the level of the full grant.

The local authority works out the student's parents' "residual income" based on their gross income, with allowances made for dependants, pension and life assurance contributions and other expenses. Where the parents' residual income is below pounds 16,050, no annual parental contribution is expected. If it's pounds 16,050 or more, students are expected to contribute pounds 45, and thereafter on a sliding scale: pounds 1 for every pounds 13 of residual income, up to pounds 20,515, then a further pounds 1 for every pounds 9.20 of residual income between pounds 20,515 and pounds 30,160. For residual income in excess of pounds 30,160, the contribution is calculated at pounds 1 for every pounds 7.50.

This means students studying outside London will get nothing if their parents' residual income is pounds 32,208, while students studying in London will get nothing if their parents' income is pounds 35,171 or more.

If parents have other dependent children their contribution is reduced by pounds 75 for each child. If a student's parents have more than one child at college, allowances will be made for this.

Independent students have their grants assessed differently. These are students who are aged 25 or more, or have been married for at least two years, or have been supporting themselves for at least three years (this can include periods of unemployment on a government training scheme).

The Government does not expect an independent student's parents to contribute to the grant, but if the student is married, the spouse's income will be taken into consideration. The local authority works out the residual income of the student's husband or wife and if this is pounds 12,700 or more, they are expected to contribute to their spouse's grant.

As well as the basic grant, students may be able to get extra funding. Students with dependants can claim pounds 405 for every child under 11, pounds 805 for an 11- to 15-year-old, pounds 1,060 for a 16- to 17-year-old and pounds 1,535 if the child is 18 or over.

Students who have to maintain a home for themselves and their dependants can get pounds 665. And if they have an adult dependant - this can include a wife or husband - they receive an extra pounds 1,915.

The grant is based on an academic year of 30 weeks and three days. Students who are on longer courses can claim an extra pounds 77.85 a week if they study in London, pounds 58.35 if they study outside London and pounds 40.90 if they live at home with their parents.

It is also possible to claim travel expenses if you are disabled, or if your course involves study away from your college. But students have to pay the first pounds 157 of any travel expenses if they study away from home, and the first pounds 243 if they live at home.

Student debt is no secret, and has prompted increasing numbers of people planning to go to university to save up some money before they go to college. According to the 1996 Student Debt Survey by Barclays Bank, more than half of first-year students (54 per cent) had saved money to go to university, an average of pounds 1,074 each.

Loans or overdrafts will help students through their first year, but student debt tends to increase as they get further through their courses.

The National Union of Students estimates that a student living in London this year on a full grant and with a student loan will have an income of pounds 3,592, which is on average pounds 1,659 less than they need to live on. A student living outside London on a full grant and a student loan of pounds 1,202 will have an income of pounds 2,912, which is pounds 1,381 less than they need to live on.

To try to stay out of the red, around a third of students take up casual jobs during term time, typically working 12 hours a week and earning an average pounds 52 a week. Third-year students are more likely to have a part- time job than those in their first and second years, perhaps in response to their growing debts, says Barclays. This is despite the heavier workload that faces students as they approach their final exams.

Even after earning extra cash in holidays and term time, many students still find themselves looking for ways to supplement their income. Borrowing money is an obvious answer, and almost 30 per cent of school-leavers believe that debt is an integral part of today's student lifestyle, according to NatWest Bank.

First port of call for students needing to borrow cash is the Student Loan Company, which will lend up to pounds 2,035 to students in London, pounds 1,645 to students studying outside London, and pounds 1,260 to students living with parents. Students can also take advantage of the interest-free overdraft facility offered on most student bank accounts.

Nearly all students (94 per cent) find themselves in debt by their third year at university, according to a survey by Midland Bank. The average student debt is pounds 1,982, according to Barclays, but 1996 entry students can expect to graduate with higher debts than this.