With average tuition at four-year private colleges topping $30,000 annually, more than 80% of today’s college students receive financial aid -- which means paying for college is likely top-of-mind for the vast majority of the nation’s more than 25 million undergraduates and their parents. The competition to secure much-needed financial aid packages remains as fierce as the admissions process and the academic environment. Below are key tips in the quest for college financial aid – which unofficially kicked off January 1 with the opening of FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
- Tip #1: Apply ASAP. Many students and their parents don’t apply for FAFSA money because they assume their family earns too much to qualify. That’s a costly assumption. Billions of dollars – which includes everything from Pell Grants, to work-study opportunities, to Federal Stafford Loans, and more – are awarded to millions of students from all income brackets. Submitting a FAFSA doesn’t guarantee you’ll get financial aid, but not submitting one guarantees you won’t. And since FAFSA is first come, first serve, the sooner you apply, the better. FAFSA can be completed online at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov. It will likely take you about 90 minutes to complete.
- Tip #2: Treat the Hunt for Scholarship Dollars like a Part-Time Job. Many students miss out on scholarship opportunities because they simply don’t put in the time. Yet millions of scholarship dollars go unclaimed because students have not applied for the funds. Fact: 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 definitely helps!). There are thousands of “niche” scholarships available for those who aren’t necessarily at the head of the class: i.e. for left-handed students; women over 5’10”; anybody under 4’10”; potato-industry boosters; and duck callers – it’s a big world out there! If you invest the same amount of time and effort into finding scholarship money that you did in putting together your college application, you might be pleasantly surprised at the scholarship options available to you. Visit your school’s guidance office and sites like www.cappex.com. Keep in mind that you can start banking scholarship money even before senior year. The more money you have by the time acceptance letters come, the more flexibility you’ll have in choosing your school, as your ability to pay will be less of an issue.
- Tip #3: A College’s First Financial Aid Package Offer is Negotiable. If your top school choice offers you a financial aid package, but it’s not enough, it’s alright to try to negotiate up. Unlike FAFSA offers, which are non-negotiable, financial aid packages awarded directly by colleges can sometimes be upped. Respectfully tell the financial aid office 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. It’s also a good idea to get to know the financial aid office BEFORE you even apply. Stop by the office during a campus visit. That way they’ll know your face and story when they see your application. It might make the difference.
“The cost associated with going to college is not decreasing, so it continues to be critical for students and their families to be savvy consumers when it comes to planning for college costs,” said Christine Brown, executive director of K-12 and college prep programs, Kaplan Test Prep. “Students and parents need to be strategic and proactive in order to improve their chances of securing strong financial aid packages and scholarships.”