Feb. 7, 2012 at 10:20 AM ET
Financial aid season kicks in this month, which means that many high school seniors and their parents are scrambling around for help.
According to Princeton Review's Robert Franek, 86 percent of college students need some form of financial aid in order to afford their education. But there is good news: About $170 billion in student aid is available.
Here is an excerpt from The Best Value Colleges - 2012 Edition: The 150 Best-Buy Schools and What It Takes to Get In (Published by Random House / Princeton Review Books Copyright © 2011 by The Princeton Review, Inc.) Reprinted with permission.
Paying for College Tips
When it comes to actually paying for college, there is a lot of information out there. A great resource is the book Paying for College Without Going Broke by Kal Chany. Here, we have some tips from Kal for applying for financial aid and ways to trim the costs of college.
1. Get the best score possible on the ACT or SAT.
Colleges don’t just consider your standardized test score(s) in their admissions decisions—they consider them in their financial aid decisions as well. Even a 10-point increase in your SAT score, for example, could save your family thousands of dollars. Simply put, colleges want students with high test scores and they give better aid packages to these students. You should enroll in a test preparation course or, at the very least, buy a book with practice tests or sample questions.
2. Be a smart shopper.
Check schools’ financial aid statistics on PrincetonReview.com. Your chances of getting significant aid will be better at schools that give generous financial aid packages. Make sure you pay attention to our Financial Aid Rating for each school.
3. Don’t immediately rule out a college because you think it’s too expensive.
The higher the cost, the more aid you may receive. Many colleges—especially the private ones—have increased their aid budgets to attract applicants whose families are now more cost-conscious given the state of the economy. A generous aid award from a pricey private school can make it less costly than a public school with a lower sticker price. But have some back-up schools in case you don’t receive enough aid to attend the pricier schools.
4. Apply to “financial aid safety schools.”
You should purposely apply to some schools where your test scores and academic record exceed the school’s admission standards. These schools, in addition to being “safety schools” in the traditional sense, are much more likely to give you merit-based aid or a better need-based aid package (i.e. one with more scholarships or grants and fewer loans). You should also apply to schools that you can afford without much—or any—aid. Most likely this will mean applying to a public institution in your home state as well as a nearby school that would allow you to live at home and skip the cost of room and board.
5. Consider attending a community college for two years.
After two years, you can transfer to a pricier school to finish your bachelor’s degree. The diploma won’t say “transfer student” on it but it will be identical to the one earned by a student who paid high tuition for all four years. Just plan ahead and be sure that the college to which you expect to transfer will accept the community college’s credits.
6. Be realistic about outside scholarships.
These scholarships account for less than five percent of all aid awarded. Research them at PrincetonReview.com or other free sites. Steer clear of scholarship search firms that charge fees and “promise” scholarships.
7. Earn college credits while still in high school.
You should take AP classes as many colleges award credits for high AP exam scores. Also take “dual enrollment” classes if they are offered at your high school. Dual enrollment classes are special classes at your school that will earn you credit at a nearby college. You’ll be able to take these credits with you when you start college. If your high school doesn’t offer dual enrollment, consider taking CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) exams in the subjects you take in high school. Depending on the college, a qualifying score on any of the 33 CLEP exams can earn students 3 to 12 college credits. Some students have cut a year off their college tuition through AP classes, dual enrollment, and/or CLEP.
8. Explore whether “cooperative education” (co-op) programs are offered at the colleges on your list.
More than 900 colleges allow students to combine their college education with a job. It can take longer to complete a degree this way, but graduates generally owe less in student loans and have a better chance of getting hired after graduation.
9. Talk to your parents about maximizing your family’s aid eligibility.
Financial aid awards for your first year of college will be based in part on your family’s income for the calendar year beginning Jan. 1 of your junior year and ending Dec. 31 of your senior year of high school. For this reason, it is not too early to begin planning when you are in the 9th or 10th grade. Your family should consider making the appropriate adjustments to its assets, debts, and retirement funds. If your family has a complicated financial situation, it may be beneficial for your parents to hire an independent financial aid consultant.
10. Apply for financial aid regardless of your family’s financial situation.
There is no automatic cut-off if your family makes a certain amount of money; you should assume that you’re eligible. Even if you don’t end up being eligible for need-based aid, some merit-based aid (for academic ability, athletic ability, etc.) may only be awarded if you have submitted financial aid applications.
11. Don’t wait until you’ve been accepted to a school to apply for financial aid there.
Meet each school’s financial aid deadlines. A school’s financial aid office website is the best place to find its filing requirements and deadlines. Most schools have deadlines between January 31st and March 15th. If you submit your forms after a school’s priority filing deadline(s), the amount of aid you are awarded may be reduced.
12. Complete all of the required aid forms.
All students seeking aid must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However additional forms, including special-state aid forms, the College Board’s CSS PROFILE, or the school’s own forms may be required. Check with each school for specifics. For the FAFSA and, if applicable, the CSS PROFILE you will need to meet the earliest deadline for that form among the schools to which you are applying.
13. Don’t fear the PROFILE.
While this form requests more information than the FAFSA does, don’t be dismayed if a school requests it. This form can actually lead to more aid in many circumstances as schools that require the PROFILE generally have more of their own aid to give out in addition to state and federal assistance.
14. If your parents’ or your own tax returns cannot be completed prior to the deadline for a financial aid form, estimate income and other tax information.
Aid applications ask for tax return information for those who file or will file taxes. If your parents’ or your own taxes (if applicable) won’t be done in time to meet a deadline, you can put estimated numbers on your aid forms; it is more important that you submit each aid form by the appropriate deadline than it is to be 100% accurate with income and expense figures. You will be able to provide the final numbers later, after taxes have been done. But don’t forget this last step — many schools will request a copy of tax returns or non-filer statements to verify the information on your aid applications.
15. Don’t rush.
Financial aid forms are like the SAT—you get the most credit for being right and on-time, not “first in line.” To get the most aid possible, you should have some understanding of how each question on each form will impact your aid eligibility. As this information is not provided on the aid forms themselves, you should refer to a consumer-friendly publication for assistance. (Paying for College Without Going Broke, for example, provides line-by-line strategies for completing the FAFSA and PROFILE to your best advantage.) If your financial situation is complicated, you might consider hiring a financial aid consultant to assist you.
16. If you don’t already have your U.S. Department of Education PIN (Personal Identification Number), apply for it now.
A PIN allows one to sign the FAFSA electronically, which reduces processing time. You can either go to the PIN web site(www.pin.ed.gov) or request a PIN as you complete the FAFSA on the Web. Note: students who are required to provide parental information on the FAFSA will need to have their parent(s) (or custodial stepparent, if applicable) sign the FAFSA. Each person who wants to sign the FAFSA electronically must have for their own PIN.
17. Frequently check your email and log onto school websites to track the status of your financial aid applications.
Once the schools have received your financial aid forms, they may require additional info (e.g., your parents’ tax returns) that they haven’t already mentioned. Be on the lookout for updates regarding your status.
18. Know that the schools are the ones in charge.
The FAFSA and PROFILE processors just give a school’s financial aid office the information it needs to make their financial aid decisions. The financial aid office will determine the types and dollar amounts of the aid you will receive; it can override the analysis done by the form processors. If your family’s circumstances have a taken a turn for the worse since last year, you can request additional aid directly from schools’ financial aid office. But expect that supporting documentation will be required.
19. Learn as much as you can about how the aid process works.
In theory, financial aid funds are supposed to go to those who need the money the most. The reality, however, is that financial aid funds flow to those who know how to navigate the aid process to their best advantage. The more you know about the process, the more confident you can be that you will get the most aid possible!
Top 10 Best Value Public Colleges
1. University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill NC)
2. University of Virginia (Charlottesville VA)
3. New College of Florida (Sarasota FL)
4. State University of New York at Binghamton (Binghamton NY)
5. University of Wisconsin (Madison WI)
6. College of William and Mary (Williamsburg VA)
7. University of Florida (Gainesville FL)
8. University of Georgia (Athens GA)
9. University of Washington (Seattle)
10. University of Texas at Austin
Top 10 Best Value Private Colleges
1. Williams College (Williamstown MA)
2. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore PA)
3. Princeton University (Princeton NJ)
4. Harvard College (Cambridge MA)
5. Rice University (Houston TX)
6. Pomona College (Claremont CA)
7. Washington University (St. Louis MO)
8. Yale University (New Haven CT)
9. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena CA)
10. Hamilton College (Hamilton NY)
The Princeton Review chose the 150 colleges (75 public and 75 private schools) on its "Best Value Colleges for 2012" list based on institutional data and student opinion surveys the Company conducted from fall 2010 through fall 2011 at 650 colleges and universities the education services company regards as the nation's academically best undergraduate institutions. The selection process reviewed wide range of factors that analyzed more than 30 data points in three areas: academics, cost of attendance, and financial aid.