College tuition help found in unlikely places

Spending Smart

Your Money

August 28, 2005|By Gregory Karp

THE AVERAGE COST of tuition, room and board at a private college is more than $27,000 a year, while public schools average more than $11,000. But it's not those numbers that matter - it's how much you pay.

"Unfortunately, those headlines scare too many people away," said Tom Joyce, a spokesman for Sallie Mae, the largest U.S. provider of student loans. "In actuality, the majority of students pay less than that. In fact, students may pay as little as a third of what they see quoted in the newspaper, depending on scholarships and grants."

Expensive schools with a fat financial-aid package can end up being cheaper than schools with much lower tuition prices. Financial aid, awarded to three-quarters of all full-time undergraduates, totaled more than $122 billion in 2003-2004.

Most scholarships are based on financial need and merit, whether grades, special talents or demonstration of ambition. But there are many other ways to pay less for college that you may not know.

Bookstores and libraries are full of books on the subject. One of the newest titles is How to Pay for College: A Practical Guide for Families, from Sallie Mae. Profits from the $19.95 book go to help needy families pay for college.

Here are some unusual cost-saving tips for college-bound students, gleaned from the Sallie Mae book and elsewhere:

Follow bro or sis. Sibling discounts are available at many universities. For example: George Washington University in Washington offers a deal in which one student pays the full price of tuition, and the other sibling attending at the same time goes for half price. At Lake Erie College in Ohio, twins can attend for the price of one.

Follow mom or dad. If you will be a "legacy," that is, attend the same school your parents did, you might be eligible for a scholarship. It may apply to legacies of grandparent alums, too.

Use alumni connections. Networking is important in business and in paying for college. Check with friends and family to find an alum of the schools your child is applying to. Alumni referrals, often just a letter from the alum, could lead to a scholarship or at least a waiver of the application fee.

Angle for in-state rates. For public colleges, neighboring states sometimes have agreements to give each other's residents in-state tuition rates. And some colleges set aside money for out-of-state students. Failing that, ask if the public college offers waivers, which allow an out-of-state student to pay in-state rates. You might have to justify the waiver by highlighting your need or academic achievement.

Become a resident. Sometimes a student can get the in-state-tuition rate at a public college just by applying for a driver's license in that state. Be aware, however, many states make it harder to establish residency.

Double down. Some colleges will match grants the student received. A $1,000 Lion's Club scholarship suddenly becomes $2,000.

Get mom or dad into academia. If your parent is a secretary, accountant, fundraiser or employed in many other professions, they probably can do the same job at a college and get discounts or free tuition for their children. For multiple children, you could be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars saved. And you don't necessarily have to attend the same school where the parent works. More than 570 colleges participate in the Tuition Exchange Inc., a reciprocal scholarship program for faculty and staff to swap tuition discounts. About 4,700 such tuition swaps were made last year.

Dig deep for scholarships. Searching and applying for scholarships takes work, but it can pay off. Often it's free money for filling out paperwork. "If somebody offered a couple hundred dollars to fill out a long form, most adults would do it, and college students definitely should," Joyce said.

Juniata College in Pennsylvania offers scholarships of up to $1,000 for some left-handed students. Other scholarships have been offered for raising awareness about organ donation or vegetarianism, being short (under 4 feet, 10 inches), being fat, being tall, skateboarding and duck calling.

And, we kid you not, scholarships are available for those who can speak the fictional Klingon language from Star Trek, women who can sing the national anthem with "sincerity," and athletes who can sport milk mustaches, a contest partially judged on a "milk experience" essay.

"Some may sound like they're not real, but they are," Joyce said. "But the point is, there's money out there for you, and you should take advantage of it."

Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing newspaper in Allentown, Pa. E-mail him at yourmoney

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