The good news for college-bound students and their families is that increases in education costs are slowing, according to the College Board. The not-so-good news is that the price for a college education still has increased 17% for private institutions and close to 30% for public institutions since 2007, pushing average tuition and fees for the 2014-2015 school year to $31,231 for private four-year schools and $22,958 for out-of-state-students ($9,138 for in-state students) at public four-year schools.
It doesn’t take an advanced mathematics degree to figure out that a majority of students and their families will need some form of financial aid — loans, scholarships, grants, tax credits and the like — to get through college. Indeed, according to the College Board, about 60% of students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2012-13 graduated with student loan debt. Undergraduates received an average of $14,180 in financial aid in the 2013-14 school year.
All of which makes it vitally important for college-bound students and their families to leave no stone unturned in an effort to reduce the financial burden that typically accompanies a college education. “Just a little bit of research and work can save thousands of dollars a semester,” says financial planner Hank N. Mulvihill, Jr., CFP® principal at Mulvihill Asset Management in Richardson, Texas, and an expert in college education finances. “The money is out there. But it takes effort to find it.”
Use the following tactics to help in the pursuit of financial aid dollars:
- Be an information sponge. The more you know about financial aid, the better positioned you’ll be to take advantage of funding opportunities. Websites such as www.savingforcollege.com, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college (from the College Board), the U.S. government’s Federal Student Aid site at https://studentaid.ed.gov/, and www.finaid.org are good starting points. It’s also worth consulting a financial planner with expertise in college funding. Find one in your area by visiting the Financial Planning Association’s national database of financial experts at www.PlannerSearch.org.
- Parlay high marks in high school into funding help. A lofty high school grade point average can translate directly into grant and scholarship money — or as Mulvihill terms it, “an $80,000 gift” to apply to college costs.
- Search diligently for scholarship and grant money. From individual companies and professional/business groups to community organizations, government entities and religious groups, a wide range of public and private sources offer scholarships and grants. “And stunningly, many of them go unrewarded,” says Mulvihill. “In some cases, really all you have to do is ask.”
For comprehensive information on scholarships and other forms of aid, check out the website www.finaid.org/scholarships, which includes a searchable database by type of scholarship/grant. The federal government’s Pell Grant program (https://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships/pell) for low- and moderate-income students is another funding source worth investigating.
- Get familiar with FAFSA. Administered by the U.S. Dept. of Education, the Free Application for Financial Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov) is a FREE process to apply for millions of dollars in grants, scholarships, federal loans and tax breaks for undergraduate and graduate school programs. Comb through the FAFSA website to learn exactly what the process entails, the documents you’ll need for applying, including tax returns, financial records (bank and brokerage statements, etc.) and more, and filing deadlines.
Also check out the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ site at www.nasfaa.org/students/About_Financial_Aid.aspx. It also offers a free downloadable guide, FAFSA Tips and Common Mistakes to Avoid, at www.nasfaa.org/EntrancePDF.aspx?id=3783.
It’s a good idea, says Mulvihill, to practice filling out the FAFSA application before actually going to the FAFSA site to fill out the real thing. Visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa/filling-out for a walk-through of the process.
And once you’ve started the application process in earnest on the FAFSA site, be sure to complete it. Also be aware that applying for financial aid via FAFSA is an annual process. The Department of Education offers an expedited renewal application at https://fafsa.ed.gov/help/fftoc01e.htm.
- Get in line early. Particularly with FAFSA, it’s crucial to submit applications as close to the Jan. 1 opening date as possible, says Mulvihill. “For the purposes of getting aid, you have to be early and quick. If you’re not in the queue for funding, you’re not getting funding.” Be sure to file not only early but accurately, as applications with errors or omissions could be bumped to the back of line for refiling. File electronically and use preliminary estimated tax return information if necessary, as FAFSA does process applications with preliminary tax numbers, provided the applicant provides final numbers later.
- Be dead serious about deadlines. In first-come, first-served situations such as FAFSA and early college admissions, your chances of success improve by filing earlier as opposed to waiting until the last minute before the deadline. Your chances evaporate altogether if you miss a deadline. So keep track of them diligently. Also be aware of deadlines for taking entrance exams such as the SAT and the ACT.
- Narrow your choices. Mulvihill recommends completing advance research (including school visits) as much as a year in advance of FAFSA and admissions application deadlines, then choosing the two or three schools to which you plan to apply, in order to focus on the specific aid programs, requirements and opportunities at those institutions.
- Consider early admissions. Early admissions may offer the best opportunity to get into your top school preference. And completing the admissions process early frees you to focus more on securing loans and landing scholarships, grants, etc.
- Get to know people in the admissions offices at your target schools. “It’s important that you make an effort to develop relationships with the admissions officers at the schools you really want to attend,” says Mulvihill. While there are no guarantees, having a personal relationship with people in the admissions office never hurts — and may help immensely. To meet them face-to-face, be sure not only to visit the school’s admissions office, but to attend one of the “road shows” that many institutions hold off campus for prospective students and their families.
- Get it in writing. Be sure the terms of an institution’s financial aid offer are clear and spelled out in a letter on school letterhead.
- “Don’t be shy about negotiating” the terms of a financial aid package offered by an institution, Mulvihill advises. Schools will compete for good students (and their money), so once you have a financial aid offer from one of your target schools, send a copy of that offer to the other schools you’re targeting to see if they can match or beat that offer. If one school offers a two-year scholarship for X amount, ask them to guarantee four years, and/or a higher amount.
- Shop around for deals. Certain lenders may offer a reduced loan interest rate merely for signing up for an auto repayment program, for example.
Follow these tips to get the most aid for your rising student! For money management tips for college aged kids, see our article: Top 10 Money Decisions for Today’s Incoming College Freshman.