For two million-plus college applicants and millions of current college students, how to afford tuition is always top-of-mind, particularly in an economy where many household incomes have remained stagnant. Competition for much-coveted financial aid remains as fierce as the admissions process itself. Below are three key tips in the race for money – which unofficially kicked off January 1 with the opening of FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) – with advice on how to successfully navigate the financial aid frenzy:
- Tip #1: Apply for FAFSA, and apply early. Many students neglect to apply for FAFSA money because they assume their parents earn too much. Wrong approach. Billions of dollars from FAFSA – which includes everything from Pell Grants, to work-study opportunities, to Federal Stafford Loans, and more – are awarded to millions of students of all economic backgrounds. While it is needs-based and lower income students may benefit the most, students from varying financial situations can receive aid. FAFSA can be completed online at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. Submitting a FAFSA doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get college financial aid, but not submitting one guarantees you won’t. You have nothing to lose and the potential to gain. And since FAFSA is a first come, first serve source, the sooner you apply, the better.
- Tip #2: Treat the hunt for scholarship money like a part-time job. Many students miss out on scholarship opportunities because they simply don’t apply or invest enough quality time looking for available money. You don’t necessarily have to be a 4.0 student or have achieved a perfect 2400 on the SAT or 36 on the ACT – though that certainly helps! College and scholarship help site Cappex.com estimates that there is $11 billion in merit aid from colleges. And according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, students’ scores on the SAT and ACT are leading factors in securing merit aid. There are also thousands of niche scholarships available for those who aren’t necessarily at the head of the class: left-handed students; individuals with the surname Gatlin; women who are over 5'10"; anybody under 4’10”; and duck callers - they all go to college too! Visit your school’s guidance office and sites like www.finaid.com to see what’s out there. You can even start banking scholarship money as early as freshman year. The more money you have by the time acceptance letters come, the more options you’ll have since your ability to pay will be less of an issue.
- Tip #3: Don’t view a financial aid offer as a final offer. If your dream school offers you a financial aid package but it’s not enough, negotiate. Unlike FAFSA offers, which are non-negotiable, financial aid packages awarded directly by colleges can be considered first offers, not final offers. Since they’ve already accepted you, they more than likely will work with you. Respectfully tell the college why you are a “must have” student or how your family’s financial situation may have changed to warrant more aid. The worst they can say is no.
“You cannot think about college today without thinking about how to pay for it. With college tuition continuing to rise, it’s more important than ever for students and their parents to be savvy consumers and act strategically to increase their chances of securing strong financial aid packages,” said Jieun Choe, executive director of college admissions and K-12 programs, Kaplan Test Prep. "While many students may find it necessary to take out loans to pay for college, it's always preferable to secure scholarships instead, which unlike loans, do not have to be paid back. It will be enormously more beneficial for students to graduate college owing as little money as possible, especially when loans carrying interest add to the full cost of tuition."
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