Colleges can adjust what student will owe

ON THE MONEY

Your Money

December 25, 2005|By GAIL MARKSJARVIS

Even if you aren't an A student or a star on the high school football team, you may be able to get scholarships and other help paying for college.

But the next few weeks, with college application deadlines looming, will be vital if you are planning to attend school in the fall.

Students who spend their winter break just relaxing could miss out on thousands of dollars in free money. And those who apply only to a nearby inexpensive college could end up paying more than necessary.

Instead, spend the next couple of weeks filling out applications for several colleges - public and private, nearby and far away.

Polished applications are the door to making college affordable and limiting the need for student loans, a critical step at a time when the average college student graduates with about $20,000 in debt.

As you consider colleges, don't let the official price tags scare you. A public college may cost less than $10,000 a year for tuition, room and board, and a private college more than $35,000. But with financial aid, you could end up paying less for the private college.

This may seem inconceivable, but most private schools adjust their price based on the attractiveness of a student and the family's income. A smart, talented, low-income student whose family can afford only $3,000 a year for college is likely to have to pay a similar out-of-pocket price at a state college, Harvard University or the University of Chicago.

If you want a sense of what college might cost based on your income, try the "How Much Aid Can You Expect?" calculator at www.smartmoney.com. Find it by clicking on "personal finance' and "college planning."

Students from families making more than $60,000 aren't likely to receive aid from public colleges based on their parents' income. And those with incomes over $150,000 probably won't qualify at private colleges. But even students from very affluent families can receive merit scholarships if they have high standardized test scores or certain abilities attractive to colleges.

Private colleges less renowned than Harvard or Yale compete aggressively for smart or talented students, offering scholarships and financial aid as inducements. Although high test scores are always in demand, everything from athletic to art to leadership skills also are important as admissions officers try to round out a diverse class of students.

So if a small private college needs saxophone players, and that's your instrument, you may get a better financial aid package at that college than another with plenty of sax players.

In fact, while a nearby college might see you as one of the hundreds of similar applicants, a private college in a distant state might offer you a scholarship so the student body is more geographically diverse.

Keep in mind that test scores are relative. Although a 1,200 SAT score might mean nothing to Harvard, it could be valuable to a lesser-known private college.

Rankings can help colleges recruit students, so they do all they can to upgrade their position in the U.S. News & World Report annual list, for example. They often use scholarships to recruit students with relatively high test scores to try to boost their rankings a peg.

If you are going to college next year, scan the rankings for colleges with an average SAT or ACT score lower than your own. That means your higher score will be attractive to them, and you might end up with a pretty merit package.

Also, check the college's acceptance rate, or the percentage of applicants that are welcomed to the school. If a college turns away 80 percent of applicants, the admissions office isn't going to be as inclined to dangle scholarships. But if a college accepts 80 percent, it might try to entice you with merit aid.

If your income is low, hunt for colleges that say they "meet 100 percent of a student's financial need." That means if the college financial aid staff calculates that your family can afford only $3,000 a year for college, but the college costs $35,000, you would receive grants to cover most of the remaining $32,000.

Colleges that don't promise to meet 100 percent of need won't be as benevolent, even if your family is struggling. And be aware, public colleges depend on public money, so don't expect them to be as generous as private schools.

Financial aid consultants often suggest applying to about 10 colleges, choosing a mixture of favorite schools and second or third choices. If a second choice offers a better financial package, you can take it to your first choice and ask if it will provide similar aid. Colleges expect this and often increase offers for desirable students.

Meanwhile, the key is to be as attractive as possible, showcasing your skills and talents in applications. For help, see Richard Montauk's book, How to Get Into the Top Colleges.

gmarksjarvis@tribune.com

Messages for Gail MarksJarvis may also be left at 312-222-4264.

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