6 Tips to Help You Get More Financial Aid

Our advice for putting together money for college: Break it down, and take it one step at a time.

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Getting admitted is just the first of the challenges colleges throw at students. Now, on top of the traditional papers, exams, and team tryouts, students have to pass a financial test, too: They've got to raise the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to get through even their local public institutions. Students who choose one of the cheapest routes—stay home for two years in a community college, then transfer to a state university—should plan on raising at least $45,000 to cover all the costs of their degree. Those who head straight for a private university may face bills exceeding $200,000.

It would be a tragedy if those figures scared many young people away from college. College degrees boost careers and finances. And paying for college is doable, if students break down the scary total into smaller parts.

Students can be expected to raise about $4,000 a year in summer and campus jobs, and financial advisers say it isn't unreasonable to expect students to take out about $4,000 a year in federal student loans. (Try to avoid more expensive private loans.) That should certainly cover community college. Families who want to send their student to a dorm at an in-state public university can raise the extra $10,000 or so by combining contributions from savings, current income, and (everybody's favorite) "free money," such as scholarships or tax credits.

"There is a lot of scrimping and saving," says Suzanne French of Leesport, Pa., who is halfway through putting four daughters through college. Her husband works two jobs, she's considering taking a second as well, and the family drives well-used cars. But they haven't raided their retirement accounts or remortgaged their three-bedroom house.

Here are details on how families like the Frenches have cobbled together enough to cover college costs:

Free money. Every student dreams about getting a "free ride" because of athletic talent or great grades. But although such generous scholarships draw plenty of attention, they are rare. Fewer than 2 percent of the nation's high school sports team members get any kind of college athletic scholarship. And only a small percentage of those cover tuition, fees, room, board, books, and other extras. The odds of getting a full academic scholarship are fairly low as well. Howard University, for example, says it distributes fewer than 60 full-ride academic scholarships to its 1,500 freshmen annually. Even the neediest students can't count on getting all the scholarships they need. Fewer than 100 of the nation's 4,300 colleges give every needy student enough to cover all their educational costs.

The good news, however, is that half of all undergraduates get some grant or scholarship to cover at least part of their tuition. The amounts, typically, aren't large, averaging $4,000. But that's enough to cover tuition at most community colleges and a good chunk of it at many public universities. Private colleges tend to hand out even more money—an average of about $7,800. Unfortunately, that's less than half of those schools' typical tuition.

Students who take six simple steps during high school can greatly increase their chances of getting some free money.

1. Study. Nagging parents are right. Studying really does pay off. The higher a student's grades and test scores, and the more impressive the extracurricular achievements, the better the chances for a scholarship. States such as Tennessee and Georgia give full-tuition scholarships (for in-state public universities) to students with at least B averages. And many (though not all) colleges use scholarship charts like this one published by the University of Nevada-Reno. The amounts are different at each school. But at Reno, B students who study hard enough to push, say, a 1050 SAT score up to 1090, get a $500 school scholarship. Those who study even harder, raise their grade-point averages to 3.5 and score at least 1170, qualify for $1,000.

2. Apply to several schools. Phoebe Rounds, a recent Yale graduate, says she's living proof that enduring the hassle of filing a few extra college applications can be worth thousands of dollars. After getting a disappointing aid offer from Yale, she mailed the financial aid office a copy of a more generous offer from Princeton. Yale upped her package to match. "Paying an extra $60 application fee in the fall could give you thousands of dollars more in aid in the spring," she says. Research bears her out. Students who get into several schools get an average of 30 percent more aid than those who get into just one. To prod colleges to ante up aid, counselors say, high school seniors should apply to at least six colleges in the fall. Besides a couple of dream schools, students should apply to low-cost schools (local public colleges are a good bet) and colleges for which their grades, test scores, or other achievements make them a catch. Increasingly, schools are using scholarships to attract the students they want to lure instead of funding all the needs of students whom they've admitted. "It's not a secret to anybody that universities compete fiercely" to attract students who will raise their statistics, profile, or prestige, Rounds notes.

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