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Tips to better navigate the financial aid frenzy

by jmaloni
Sat, Jan 14th 2012 06:40 am

For 2 million-plus college applicants, how to pay for college is always top-of-mind, particularly during today's tough economic times. Competition for much-coveted financial aid remains as fierce as the college admissions process itself, so it's imperative that applicants and their parents know fact from fiction. Below are three common myths about the college financial process, followed by advice for students and their parents.

Myth No. 1: "I won't get any FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) money because my parents earn too much, so there's no point in applying." Wrong approach. Billions of dollars from FAFSA - which includes everything from Pell Grants, to work-study opportunities, to federal Stafford Loans, and more - are awarded to millions of students of all economic backgrounds. While it is needs-based and lower income students may benefit the most, students from varying financial situations can receive aid. However, since this is also a first come, first serve source, apply early - before the funding runs out. Applications just opened earlier this month and can be completed online at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov in about an hour or so. Our advice: Everyone should apply, and apply early. Submitting a FAFSA doesn't guarantee that you'll get college financial aid, but not submitting one guarantees you won't. You have nothing to lose and the potential to gain.

Myth No. 2: "My dream school offered me a financial aid package, but it wasn't enough. I guess I'll have to attend a different college." Not necessarily. Unlike FAFSA offers, which are non-negotiable, financial aid packages awarded directly by colleges can be considered first offers, not final offers. Since they've already accepted you, they more than likely will work with you. Our advice: Learn the art of negotiation. Tell the college 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.

Myth No. 3: "I'm sort of an average student. Scholarships are just for students with the best academic records." Not so. 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 helps too. Left-handed students; individuals with the surname Gatlin; women who are over 5 feet 10 inches; anybody under 4 feet 10 inches; and duck callers - these are just some of the thousands of little-known scholarships available for students who are not necessarily at the head of the class. Our advice: Visit your school's guidance office and sites such as www.Findaid.com to see what's out there. You can actually start banking scholarship money as early as freshman year. The more money you have by the time acceptance letters come, the more options you'll have since your ability to pay will be less of an issue.

"Most applicants and their parents cannot think about college today without thinking about how to pay for it. With college tuition continuing to rise, the good news is that by being informed and acting strategically, applicants can increase their chances of securing strong financial aid packages, even if they don't think they qualify or are eligible," said Jieun Choe, executive director of college admissions and K-12 programs, Kaplan Test Prep.

On Sunday, Jan. 29, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. EST, Kaplan Test Prep will hold a live webinar, "21 Ways to Pay Less for College - Scholarships, Financial Aid & Saving Strategies," where students and their parents can learn from experts how to lower the cost of college. To register, visit www.kaptest.com/saveforcollege.

Facts about college costs:

•In 2011-12, on average, public four-year colleges charge $8,244 in tuition and fees for in-state students. For full-time out-of-state students at these institutions the cost is $12,526.

•Private nonprofit four-year colleges charge, on average, $28,500 per year in tuition and fees.

•In the most recent academic year, the average amount of aid for a full-time undergraduate student was almost $12,500 including more than $6,500 in aid that did not have to be paid back.

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