This article was written as a guest post by Neeta Vallab, founder of MeritMore, a free online tool to help parents with college-bound students find merit aid and more easily navigate the admissions process.
It’s no secret that college costs are (and have been) through the roof. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average cost of attending a public college is $17,797 including tuition, fees, and room and board, and $46,014 to attend a private college.
It’s no wonder families are asking themselves how they are going to pay for school. Families who have 529 plans or other college savings are routinely shocked by the amount of their Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which impacts their level of financial aid. The key to avoiding the student loan trap is to make both your out-of-pocket expenses and the amount of money you have to borrow as low as possible.
Below are five tips you can use to get more money for college.
Ways to Get More Money for College
1. Use merit aid to reduce your college costs.
You can make college significantly more affordable by taking advantage of merit aid, the largest pool of non-loan money awarded directly by colleges to prospective students.
Merit aid scholarships are used to attract students who can boost the applicant stats of a college. They are renewable scholarships that are typically offered to students in the top 25% of a college’s most recently admitted first-year class. No separate application is required to receive merit aid.
You don’t have to be a straight-A student to get a merit aid scholarship. Find out if you qualify for merit aid by visiting a college website to find their common data set. Apply their top quartile data (each school’s is different) for your standardized test scores.
A merit aid search tool, MeritMore will generate a list of all your strongest merit aid match schools in seconds. The tool also lets you search by “GPA only” which is helpful if you are considering test-optional schools. Some schools use the FAFSA to award merit aid scholarships. Always fill out the FAFSA, even if you won’t qualify for need-based aid.
2. Play the private scholarship game wisely.
Applying for private scholarships can help reduce your out-of-pocket expenses, but there are a few things you should keep in mind.
Avoid large scholarship sites that promise to auto-apply for scholarships, and never pay to apply for scholarships.
Applying for smaller local scholarships that you can find through your high school’s guidance office is often the best scholarship strategy. This is because the chances of being awarded local scholarships are higher because you won’t have as much competition.
Be aware that many colleges won’t allow you to ‘stack’ scholarships, meaning that the amount of your private scholarship will be deducted from the aid awarded by the college. Don’t waste your time applying for private scholarships unless you know you can use them in addition to college-based aid. Do contact admission offices to see if they have college-specific scholarships you can apply for.
3. Decode your financial offer letters.
After completing your FAFSA application, you will receive a financial aid package that details your state and federal financial aid. You may also receive an award letter directly from the university, which details any additional aid that they may offer. Your first step should be to understand exactly what is being offered to you, including any scholarships, grants, federal student loans, work study, or other aid.
Find out if any grant money you are offered is renewable each year and what requirements are stipulated. If you’re awarded work study, make sure the college has enough work study job opportunities for everyone who is eligible. If you have applied to multiple colleges, make sure you compare the offer letters that you receive from each of them, and use this information to help you decide where you should attend
4. Appeal for more money.
If you aren’t happy with the aid that you’ve been offered from a particular college or university, the good news is that you can always appeal for more.
Before you start writing an appeal letter, ask the college what their appeal process entails. Try to gather competitive offers from similar colleges and any documentation of changes to your financial situation for the appeal. You can also ask if a college will consider capping their annual tuition increase for you in your appeal letter.
Generally speaking, the earlier you apply, receive an aid letter, and appeal, the better, as most colleges have a limited amount of aid to disburse each year—often on a first-come, first-served basis.
5. Save cash through the application process.
Paying for the College Board to send your standardized test scores to schools adds up quickly. If a school allows self-reporting of scores, you can save yourself hundreds of dollars. Take advantage of application fee waivers that schools offer as well. Students who qualify for need-based financial aid are usually granted a waiver, but some schools offer waivers if students meet certain college-specific criteria (e.g. recent on-campus visit).
Finally, if You Have to Take Out a Loan…
Many college students will ultimately rely on student loans to help them cover the cost of college not covered by other aid. If you find yourself in this situation, keep the following rules of thumb in mind:
- Always start by accepting federal student loans before turning to private student loans
- If you are offered both subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans, exhaust your subsidized loans first
- Consider alternative types of student loans, including state-based student loans and institutional loans, before turning to private loans
Because private student loans are likely to be the most expensive option, you should turn to them only after you have exhausted all other possibilities.