Getting admitted to your choice college is only half the battle; the other half is figuring out how to pay for it. The competition for resources can be stiff, especially in tough economic times. Princeton Review shares tips on planning so that you can take advantage of financial aid. The most important rule? Start early.
1. Start researching aid possibilities sooner rather than later. The competition for aid increases when the economy is weak. Those who plan ahead for the aid process will do much better than those who procrastinate and miss deadlines.
2. Take steps that improve your aid eligibility. For example, if you have lost your job, you should avoid the temptation to spend any assets in your retirement plan. In addition to the likely early distribution penalties and additional income taxes, the higher income will reduce your aid eligibility.
3. Apply for financial aid no matter what your circumstances — flush or not. Applying by the priority deadlines, even if you think you won’t qualify, will help you if your finances take a turn for the worst. Some schools will only accept requests for reconsideration due to a decline in income from those students who filed for aid on time — even if they were turned down initially.
4. You should still not initially rule out any school as being too expensive. Many colleges — especially the private ones — have increased their aid budgets to attract applicants whose families are now more price resistant given the state of the economy. But have a back-up plan in case the aid is not enough to attend those pricier schools. Most likely this will mean also applying to a public institution in your home state and/or any school where the student can live at home instead of paying for room and board.
5. Pay less for a four-year degree. You can save on costs if the student attends a community college for two years and then transfers to a pricier school for his or her remaining two years. However, be sure that the college to which the student plans to transfer will accept the credits from the community college.
6. Encourage your student to take as many AP courses as possible and to prep well for AP exams. High scores on AP exams can save considerably on college tuition. Many colleges award course credits for them, which can reduce the amount you need to pay in tuition.
7. Apply strategically to colleges. If you exceed the school’s admission criteria, you are much more likely to get a better aid package than a marginal applicant. Be sure to prep for the standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT, so that the student is more desirable.
8. Be realistic about how much debt the student can incur, given the starting salaries for his or her probable major and career path.
9. If you have to borrow, pursue federal loans first and avoid having the student take on private loans at all costs.
10. If your circumstances have a taken a turn for the worst, request additional aid. But expect that the college may require considerable supporting documentation.
11. In addition to your aid planning, focus on planning for the various education tax benefits you can claim. After all, a dollar you can save on your taxes is worth the same as getting an additional dollar in grant or scholarship aid.
12. Don’t put tuition on a credit card. This debt is more expensive than ever, given the recent changes to interest rates and other fees that many card issuers are now charging. You also want to be sure you avoid maxing out on your borrowing limit, just in case you need to use the card to pay for an unexpected emergency.
Excerpted from “Paying for College Without Going Broke: 2010 Edition” by Kalman A. Chany (Random House/Princeton Review Books, Published October 2009).