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Student Financial Aid Tutorial

Sep 4, 2008
It now costs around $33,000 a year on average to attend a private university,
and around $14,000-$16,000 to attend a public university. Where's a
middle-class family supposed to get all that money? That's what this report
is about.

It's surprising, but there are many sources of student financial aid out there.
But you have to be savvy about how to go about applying for it.

The First Steps

In some households, it's the parents who take on most of the work involved in
applying for student financial aid; in others, the high school student does it all
himself or herself. In what follows, I'll address the high school student directly
to make things easier, recognizing that most readers of this article will be parents, not students (however, please email this article on to your teen-ager!)

To The Student

As a student bound for college, one of the first things you should do -- preferably
in your junior year -- is to speak to your high school guidance counselor about
available financial aid. He/she can steer you to many scholarships, loans, and
work study programs you'd never find on your own. Remember: there are
thousands of student aid sources available, not just the few you may be
aware of. It's your guidance counselor's job to know about virtually all of them.

One thing your guidance counselor will tell you to do right away is to complete
the FAFSA form. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This
basic form will be used to determine your financial aid requirements by nearly
all schools and institutions which offer financial aid. So you want to complete
it carefully and accurately. You can access the form online at fafsa.ed.gov. Or
you can get it by calling 1-800-FED-AID.

FAFSA is administered by the United States Department of Education. You
should file it early during the second semester of your senior year, as soon
as your family has prepared their tax return (you'll need info from that
return to use in the form). It takes 1-2 months to get your evaluation back,
which will be called a Student Aid Report. Based on the financial info you
provide about yourself and your family, the US Department of Education
will estimate how much money you can contribute from your own
resources toward your college expenses.

So for example, if that figure is $10,000 and your expected total expenses
at a college you plan to attend will be $13,000 for the freshman year, your
"Financial Need" is $3,000. Many colleges will, as part of their acceptance
procedure, offer financial aid packages that cover most or all of the Financial
Need amount.

Also, some schools require the so-called PROFILE forms. These are administered
by the College Board and are used primarily by private colleges to estimate your
eligibility for nongovernmental loans (such as loans provided by the college itself). The PROFILE is somewhat similar to FAFSA but more detailed. You can obtain
and file the PROFILE at: Collegeboard.com.

Be sure to check with your guidance counselor and/or the colleges where you're
applying to find out if there are any other forms you need to fill out.

A Few Insider Tips

Note that scholarships, not loans, should be your primary goal. There are a great
many specialized scholarships out there. Maybe you're an inventor, or maybe you
have a family member in the Armed Services, or maybe you speak an in-demand
language for which the government or some other institution needs translators,
like Chinese or Russian. You'll be amazed at how many specialized scholarships
you find yourself qualified for. Check with your guidance counselor and also visit
Collegeboard.com to research this subject.

Beware of fee-based scholarship search services on the Web. Some of them are
outright scams. At a minimum, check with the Better Business Bureau and your
guidance counselor before paying anyone a fee to search for scholarships for you.

Many scholarships require you to write a "scholarship essay." If so, say the experts, focus on answering the question posed by the essay. The most common reason
for rejection is that the student meanders and drifts off-topic in the essay. Also: be sure to proof-read your essay before submitting!

As for student loans, there are two types: loans provided by the government and
those which are merely guaranteed by the government. The former usually carry
a lower interest rate.

The most commonly-sought student loans today are these two: the Stafford Loan and
the Perkins Loan. You can only borrow about $3000 for your freshman year under the
Stafford Loan (higher amounts for later years), and you must demonstrate at least
moderate financial need to qualify. The Perkins Loan provides up to $4000 for the
freshman year but requires a demonstration of exceptional financial need. The Perkins is considered a very good loan for students because interest does not accrue while you're attending college.

If you can't put together enough financial aid by means of scholarships and loans,
your parents may be able to take out a PLUS loan (Parents Loan for Undergraduate
Students) or borrow from a private lender, such as a bank or other financial institution.

Don't be afraid to apply for admission to the school you really want based on cost. Availability of student aid varies considerably among colleges, and the one you want to attend may have a sizable scholarship endowment, in which case it might turn out to be much less expensive than you think.

When you estimate financial requirements, don't focus entirely on tuition and room and board. You'll also need money for books, transportation, and personal expenses (entertainment, clothes, etc.) If a college accepts you and then offers you a financial aid package which you feel is inadequate -- and if this is a school you've set your heart on attending -- then write a letter and ask for more financial aid, say most experts. Address the letter to the Director of the Financial Aid Office (get his/her name from the school switchboard).

In your letter, try to provide a solid, specific reason why you need more aid, such
as "Our family has had a medical emergency," or "My father has lost his job recently." If you don't have a good reason you might try, "We have a large family and all my four brothers will be attending college soon." That one probably won't work. However, if you have received a larger financial aid offer from another college, you should definitely mention that fact, say the experts. It's even a good idea to include the letter offering you the financial assistance. This may sound like hardball but often gets results, provided you're a student the college would really like to have.

Check out the college-ranking edition of U.S. News & World Report. It includes average amount of student financial aid received by each college's students. This should give you a fairly good idea if a given college is likely to provide the amount of aid you need. Be very careful you don't get hooked in by a college that offers a great financial aid package for the freshman year, then cuts it back in
later years. Some colleges do this in order to get top students or athletes to attend. One way to check this out is to talk to present students at the college who are receiving aid. Also check with your guidance counselor, who may be aware of colleges in your area that have a reputation for this type of tactic.

To Do List: Junior Year and Summer Before Senior Year -- Research Colleges and all sources of student financial aid; Senior Year, Fall -- Talk to guidance counselor; apply to selected colleges; apply for scholarships; Senior Year, January -- File the FAFSA; File the PROFILE; apply for more scholarships and grants; Senior Year, Early Spring -- Review accept/decline letters and financial aid offers from colleges, make your decision.
About the Author
Joseph Ryan is Director of Washington Research Associates, Inc., Washington DC. The firm's website, Web Search Guides provides helpful 10-minute tutorials on topics of current interest, such as identity theft, asset-searching, people searching, identity theft, and many others.
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