College Search and Financial Aid Advice

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I have covered many college search and financial aid topics in the last few posts, so let’s pull it all together with practical financial aid advice.  Rates, amounts, and qualifications for financial aid change frequently, so it is important to check on current information.  In a future post, I’ll list all the college search and financial aid websites I reference so we’ll have them in one easy to reference place.

Financial Aid Advice

Colleges offer merit aid to lure the most desirable students they can get.  To get the most generous merit aid offers, apply to schools where your student likely will rank among the top 25-50% of students.  Conversely, don’t expect much merit aid from schools where your student’s grades and SAT’s are in the lower half.  If a parent or grandparent is an alum, see if the college offers “legacy” scholarships.  Colleges may reduce their aid offers when you receive private scholarships, but reductions can be from loans or grants.  If they reduce your grants, call and ask if they will reduce the loans instead.

Colleges say they don’t negotiate financial aid; after all everyone wants more money and the amount available for giving is limited.  Nonetheless, most have an appeals process and you can sometimes increase the amount you get.  If you think the amount offered really is low, talk to a financial aid official and ask how it was computed.  Look to see if a specific financial circumstance was overlooked, not included on your FAFSA, or has or will change such as a particular family financial hardship.  Let the financial aid office know if you get a better offer from a competing school and see if they will match it because you really want to go to their school.  You may have better success if you let the student do the appealing or the student’s data is among the college’s top 25%.  Some experts suggest waiting until near the acceptance deadline to accept an aid package in hopes it will be improved to better entice attractive students, while others say that the earlier you apply and accept, the more aid that will be available.  Still the reality remains that the best students to a particular college will attract the best financial aid offers.

Get an overview to planning and paying for college:

Comparing offers

It can be hard to compare competing aid packages from different schools consisting of several types of aid and most want an answer by May 1.  Families have many complaints about award letters, including not showing the cost to attend the school, loan repayment amounts, whether the aid likely will be similar or less in future years, and most of all – what is the net out-of-pocket costs to attend the school after aid is deducted.

Comparing aid packages may depend upon your circumstances.  If your income may rise in the future, this could lessen your grants based upon financial needs and make merit scholarships more attractive.  But some students find it difficult to maintain the grade point average to keep merit scholarships, so need-based grants might be better.  Many schools offer a higher percentage of aid as grants during the first years than the later years because freshman aren’t allowed to borrow as much as upperclassmen.  When you are offered financial aid, ask whether it will be the same each year assuming your financial situation stays the same.

Several organizations are trying to make it easier to understand and compare your financial aid offers and options.  Until more colleges adopt these tools, you can complete them yourself to get a better understanding of your options.

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