Bombarded by news about increasing costs, burgeoning student debt and plummeting endowments, moms and dads already overwrought about getting kids into college now worry what will happen if they do—how will they pay for it? A survey earlier this year found that 83 percent of Americans think students have to borrow too much to pay for college—and 60 percent say colleges care more about the bottom line than educating students. Colleges counter that education is labor-intensive, that students want shiny new dorms and rock-climbing walls, and that they’re handing out more aid than ever before. Here’s how to get your fair share.
Fill out your FAFSA.
Yes, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (fafsa.ed.gov) is long and cumbersome and confusing. But you’d be crazy not to take the time to complete it (or help your kid do so). “Under any circumstances, apply for federal financial aid,” advises Philadelphia Community College president Stephen M. Curtis. The complicated formula the feds use—it takes into account your (and your child’s) income, your investments, how many kids you have, and their ages, among other factors—results in something known as the Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC—the amount colleges are supposed to expect you to kick in per year, filling in the rest with grants, loans and work-study earnings. The poorer you are, the more important the FAFSA is; among other things, it’s the basis for federal Pell grants.
The more a school wants you, the more aid you’ll get.
The EFC should guarantee that all your financial aid offers are in the same ballpark. It doesn’t. How much aid a school dangles can depend on how much money it has, how much the lacrosse coach wants your kid, and even how that kid was accepted. (Wait-listed students typically pay in full.) And schools like to round out their profiles, so they can show class stats full of diversity. If your child fits a niche a college wants to fill—if he or she is a minority, say—it could mean more bucks.
Don’t assume a school’s out of your reach.
Some of the Ivies now guarantee no loans, only grant money that needn’t be repaid, for students from families with incomes below a certain level. (At Princeton, it’s $60,000.) Meantime, state schools—-traditionally bargains—find their budgets over-stretched even as they’re awash in applicants. If your child loves a school, tell her to apply—for admission and aid—and see what turns up. That said …
You never know until you ask.
So, you got the aid offer from your daughter’s dream -college—and there’s still no way you can afford it. Swallow your pride, and call the financial aid office. Explain that this school is your daughter’s first choice, that she really, really wants to go there, and that all that stands between her and happiness is the dough. (Bonus points if you can get her to make the call.) Remember, schools are always looking to up their yield rates, and your call assures them your girl will enroll if they can just crunch the numbers. We’ve seen schools up their offers as much as $8,000.