Some dos and don'ts in applying for college aid

On The Money

Your Money

February 27, 2005|By Lorene Yue

The celebration of learning that your child has been accepted to a prestigious private college can be cut short when you realize that the invitation comes with a hefty price tag.

Even if the college has less than Ivy League status, it might have nearly an Ivy League price tag. The average total annual cost of attending a private college last year was $27,516, according to the College Board. For a state school, the average price was $11,354, including tuition and room and board for in-state students.

It's easy to get confused and feel lost when you're trying to assemble the money to foot the bill. To simplify things, think of the money coming in roughly equal parts from savings, current income and financial aid.

Here's a quick list of what to do and what not to do.

Do apply for financial aid even if you think you're not eligible. Complete and submit that Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as FAFSA, regardless of your income. (You can do it online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.) Most schools have February and March deadlines. "Fill it out just to make sure you're not eligible," said Daniel R. Mann, director of financial aid for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Household income isn't the sole determining factor for free aid. What matters is how your income stacks up against the tuition tab. For example, a student from a household with $159,000 in annual income could qualify for need-based financial aid at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where tuition and fees are nearly $28,000 this year.

And remember to fill the FAFSA out every year, regardless of what you received the previous year.

Don't pay for services you can get free. Sounds silly, but every year people shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend a seminar or to hire a company to fill out forms.

Web sites such as Petersons.com, FastWeb.com and Scholarships.com provide free searches.

"Be extremely wary of any group that promises to find you financial aid," said James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America in Arlington, Va. "No third party can promise aid to a family. Those decisions are made by the financial aid department of a university."

If you need help filling out the FAFSA, call the university your child plans to attend. It will talk you through the application.

Do find out whether there are other forms. Some universities might require additional paperwork, such as the College Board's Profile application, to determine eligibility for their grants and scholarships. And take care in filling out everything, including the admissions form.

Do hunt for scholarships. Check with your company, retailers (Target provides a$25,000 scholarship each year and hundreds of $1,000 awards), places of worship and community groups for possible funds.

Don't borrow against retirement funds. Tap into your individual retirement account or 401(k) as a last resort. You could get socked with an early-withdrawal penalty and rob your future savings of compounded interest.

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