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Financial Aid, FAFSA and Your Family

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Every year, college attendance costs rise faster than inflation. The latest numbers from the College Board, in their report “Trends in College Pricing,” show average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges or universities rose 7.1 percent to $5491. In addition, room and board increased an average of 9.8%, rising to $10,636 per year.

For this same time period, private four-year colleges and universities average tuition costs rose 5.9 percent over the previous year to $21,235, with a the combined annual bill that included room and board rising 5.7 percent to $29,026.

Adjusted for inflation, tuition costs at public colleges have grown 69 percent over the past 10 years, with tuition increases at private schools beating inflation by 57 percent over the same timeframe. According to the College Board, these trends in college costs are long-term, and will continue to outrun inflation.

Financial aid becomes available in early January. Complete your family’s taxes and fill out the FAFSA early. To speed the process, apply online www.fafsa.ed.gov and use their help features and calculators. The online process gives a warning if anything is left out, and don’t leave any blanks or the application will be voided.

The paper application takes six to eight weeks to be processed, but the online turnaround is generally about 2 weeks. Using estimated tax figures is perfectly acceptable, and actual numbers can be exchanged later if a difference is discovered.

While financial aid money is distributed through May, it goes out on a first-come, first-serve basis, and is often fully distributed March to April. So filing early can mean the difference between receiving thousands of dollars and hundreds of dollars—or no money at all.

Jean Chatzky, financial editor for NBC’s Today Show and an editor-at-large for “Money Magazine,” says, “Start by determining what your student’s eligibility for aid and EFC—expected family contribution—is likely to be.”

The Princeton Review Web site at princetonreview.com has a calculator you can use to run through this task, and here are some additional points Chatzky recommends families consider:

  • Avoid out-of-state public schools if financial needs are great. Out-of-state schools only charge higher tuition rates to non-resident students, but state money available to the school will be needed by its own resident students.

  • Look for a financial “safety school.” Yes, the high-priced private schools can generally offer more financial aid, but in case funds fall short, look for a backup college, like an in-state public university, where scholarships and grants can cover most or all of the costs.

  • You can run, but you can’t hide from the numbers. Since not all schools look at finances the same way, pay close attention to how each college runs your family’s numbers. Some consider your home’s full market value, others don’t consider any of its value, and still others cap value at twice the family income. While it may seem an invasion of privacy, the more information a school requires, the more money you’re likely to receive. Likewise, furnish documentation on family setbacks, such as large medical expenses or job loss.

  • Check out the up-and-comers. Many good schools try to make their names by attracting top-notch students. If your grades are competitive, ask for merit-based aid, and pay attention to the percentage of total cost they are willing to meet.

  • Use what you’ve got. Books and the Internet are filled with information you can use to decide where you place against the top quartile of students applying to any school. By choosing where you will be considered “a catch” you can gain a better package. Also, look for schools that need your specialty, if you’re, say, a band member or a member of lacrosse or rowing.

  • Create your own (geographic) diversity. Having students from all across the country is important to college. Consider applying to distant colleges that none of your classmates are considering.

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