How-To

Financial Aid Advice

Having trouble figuring out just how much college is going to cost? Worried about raising the money you’ll need? We’ve gathered some of the most frequently asked questions and condensed the advice of dozens of experts into a few simple steps.

Can’t figure out how much the school is really going to cost you?

Look for the school’s total cost of attendance (COA)-which includes tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and miscellaneous living expenses-in the papers the school sent, or on its website. If you can’t find the total COA, you can estimate it yourself by adding tuition, fees, room, board, and about $3,500 or so. If you can’t find the COA, you can also call and ask the college financial aid office for the COA. Make sure they don’t just give you the total “direct costs,” which accounts for only tuition, fees, room, and board. Federal law requires schools to make available to students their official total cost of attendance.

Subtract the total of your free money (grants and scholarships) from the COA. If you have trouble with the math, ask the financial aid office for help calculating your out-of-pocket costs. Explain that you want your cost only after grants and scholarships have been subtracted from your total cost of attendance.

Having trouble estimating your true cost of a degree?

Enter the school’s name in this federal government web tool. After you’ve clicked on the school’s name, click on “Retention/Graduation rates.” The chart gives the percentage of students who graduate in four, five, and six years. Calculate next year’s true cost of attendance by adding up tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and miscellaneous expenses. Then subtract out your free money (grants and scholarships).

Multiply your net cost by four if the federal statistics indicate most students at your school graduate in four years. If most students take longer, then multiply by five, or even six, depending on the school’s statistics. Increase the total by about 10 percent to account for probable inflation.

Haven’t received enough aid?

Figure out your total cost of attendance by adding up ALL the costs: tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and miscellaneous living expenses. Then subtract out only the free money (grants and scholarships). If your true cost seems unaffordable, BEFORE YOU SEND IN YOUR DEPOSIT BY THE MAY 1 DEADLINE, gather your family’s financial information to see if there is any cost that was not accounted for by the FAFSA or PROFILE, such as medical bills, funerals, support of a relative, etc.

Gather any evidence of a reduction in the family’s income since the FAFSA was filed, such as a job loss. Prepare an argument as to why you legitimately cannot afford to pay what the college is asking. Warning: Schools won’t be sympathetic if you can’t pay because you’ve just bought a new truck or have vacation plans. Also, if you lowballed your income on the FAFSA or PROFILE, don’t appeal. Schools taking a second, harder look at your application might decide to reduce your aid.

Has your favorite school awarded so much less aid than have other schools that you won’t be able to afford your top choice?

Analyze each school’s true cost of attendance by adding up ALL the costs: tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and miscellaneous living expenses. Then subtract out only the free money (grants and scholarships) to make sure you’re really comparing apples with apples.

Compare the quality of the schools. Is your top choice highly ranked and the generous school a local community college or other school that isn’t of the same quality? If so, take a moment to consider things from the school’s point of view. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

If the true cost of your favorite school is significantly higher than another school of a similar quality, BEFORE YOU SEND IN A DEPOSIT BY THE MAY 1 DEADLINE, draft a polite letter to the financial aid office of your top choice. Explain how much you would add to the school and what a loyal alumnus you would be, and how sad it would be if a few thousand dollars stood in the way of such a winning combination. Include a copy of the more generous award letter and ask diplomatically if your top choice might have overlooked something about your finances that the other school noticed.

Follow up a few days later with a telephone call, or, to show how serious you are, a personal visit. (Call and make an appointment, to be polite, of course.)

Can’t afford your true costs?

If you haven’t already done so, fill out the FAFSA (and, if necessary, the PROFILE) immediately. Call the college’s financial aid office and ask to apply for as much financial aid as possible.

Calculate any potential savings that can be applied to reduce your true costs. Many middle-class families find that they are able to reap $2,000 to $3,000 in food, insurance, and miscellaneous savings when the student moves to college.

Unless there’s a good reason to the contrary, students should work summers AND during school and contribute a total of $4,000 a year toward college costs. Students should save $2,000 from a summer job to cover books and travel and should be able to earn another $2,000 to cover entertainment and miscellaneous expenses by working no more than 12 hours a week during school. (Working more than 15 hours a week has been shown to hurt studies.)

The student can take on a reasonable amount of debt through the Stafford loan program. Freshmen are allowed to borrow $3,500. Sophomores can borrow $4,500. Upperclassmen can borrow $5,500.

Find out if you are eligible to get any tax breaks such as the Hope or Lifetime Learning credits, or take an education deduction. Those could reduce April’s tax bill by up to $2,000.

  • Check to see if your employer has any education benefits.
  • Apply for private scholarships.
  • Consider delaying school for a volunteer year in AmeriCorps, VISTA, or similar program. You’ll get a living stipend and $4,725 toward future college costs. Even better, a growing number of colleges are matching that grant with scholarships.
  • Consider lower-cost educational options such as community college.
  • Try studying and passing tests, such as the CLEP and DSSTs, to place out of the freshman year and thus reduce total educational costs.