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6 Tips for Families Seeking Help Paying for College

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's decision time for high school seniors thinking about college, and that presents a whole host of challenges and deadlines.

According to Sallie Mae, high school seniors are "all in" on continuing their education at a higher level. The education financial company says 83% of college students and parents "strongly agreed that higher education is an investment in the future, college is needed now more than ever (70%), and the path to earning more money (69%)."

Paying for college has also become something of a balancing act. Sallie Mae says students pay for 30% of college bills while their parents cover 37%, with scholarships, grants and direct college aid covering the rest.

So college expenses are something parents and high school seniors should handle together.

"Students and parents should weigh the cost and affordability of college as a family," says Charlie Rocha, senior vice president at Sallie Mae. "There are a number of options available, and it's important that they do their homework together in order to best realize their return on the educational investment."

Unfortunately, not many families take the 'team' approach. Sallie Mae says only 25% of families shared decision-making responsibilities on college financing, and only 15% collaborated on where the student will ultimately go to college.

But not only should students and families act together, they should act soon. May 1 is only a few weeks away, and that's the date most colleges and universities want an answer from accepted applicants on whether they'll be hitting campus come Labor Day weekend.

When high school seniors get their collegiate acceptance letters, they'll also likely see a financial aid letter spelling out financial aid eligibility and the type, amount and source of aid for the upcoming year. With that letter in hand, students and families will need to create a financial battle plan -- not just for the freshman year, but for all four years in college.

Here's Sallie Mae's advice on how to get the most financial aid possible:
  • Get your "Shopping Sheet." Families should log on and download the U.S. Department of Education's college financing "shopping sheet." More than 600 U.S. colleges participate in the program, which essentially covers all the college financing options available to incoming freshman.
  • Ask about the Pell Grant.

    If a family is struggling financially, the U.S government offers Pell Grants of up to $5,645 annually.
  • Hammer away at scholarship opportunities. Sallie Mae advises maxing out on all the scholarship applications possible. To get started, visit the company's Scholarship Search Web page.
  • Keep in touch with your collegiate aid office.

    If you lose your job or otherwise suffer a loss of income, get in touch with your college of choice's financial aid office right away. Often a change in income levels can earn you more financial aid -- but you have to ask for it.
  • Take an "installment" approach.

    Sallie Mae advises families who can't afford a lump sum payment to pursue an installment payment plan. The company says such plans are available at hundreds of colleges and universities. For information, click here.

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