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A student's dilemma: Work more, get less free money
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For students stuck with the blessing and burden of earning more than $2,550 each year, Rogers recommends banking as much as possible up until two years before filing for federal aid (so that your income won't count as base-year pay), then consider changing jobs or cutting back on hours. "For every two dollars you earn beyond $2,550, you lose one dollar in financial-aid eligibility," he says. "Uncle Sam is practically twisting your arm to take a load off."

Alternative strategies
Fine for some, but many families simply can't afford to take a load off. If you must earn more than $2,550 per year, Rogers says to focus on lowering your savings account assets. For example, if you receive cash gifts for high school graduation, spend it on things that you'll need to get through your freshman year in college.

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"If you were to spend that money on necessary school items, such as clothing, equipment and supplies, then you would not lose so much," in possible financial aid money, he says. By blowing your savings -- on books, phone cards, sheets, a laptop or anything else you'll need -- before filling out a FAFSA, you'll have fewer assets in your name, possibly resulting in a bigger federal aid check for you.

If you're already stocked up for college, Rogers recommends deferring your cash to one of your parents' or grandparents' accounts -- preferably a 529 account. Or, if you already have a 529 account established in your own name, put it in there. These assets will be assessed at the lower 5.6-percent rate. True, you won't be able to spend that money on anything your heart desires, but the money will be put toward your college education, the loftiest goal you have.

Talk to the experts
The easiest and most effective way to figure out how to get the most college cash possible is to go over your family's exact figures with a financial aid officer. Beyond helping you conquer the FAFSA forms, financial aid officers also know about school and academic-major-specific scholarships and grants for which you might be the perfect candidate.

Ann Murtagh Gitto, financial aid director for Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass., says that an officer can make an enormous impact on your financial aid package, especially if you attend a private college or university.

"We have some institutional funds available to students that have need, whereas in a public college, it's pretty cut and dry," Gitto says. "There's nothing you can do if the expected family contribution goes up and you're no longer eligible for a Pell grant, but we do help the student with any institutional grant money that we may have."

Public or private school, aid officer or not, the fastest way to win free dough is to work, save and spend smartly.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: May 10, 2006
 
 
More stories by Christina Couch
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