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I've been accepted at several colleges. Now what?

So you've finally made it into college. Congratulations! Now all you've got to do is find a way to pay for it.

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For lucky students with multiple financial aid offers on the table, finding the best fiscal fit for your family isn't as simple as tallying the offers. Covering the real cost of college is much more complicated than just coughing up tuition, room and board. To make sure your offer truly is as good as it looks on paper, consider these tips on getting the most bang for your buck.

Find the hidden costs
You thought that the average $12,000 estimated cost of attendance for a public university (a walloping $29,000 for a private college) was all you'd have to worry about? Think again. Beyond the price of tuition, room and board, students will also have to pony up for student, lab, and library fees, books, travel, school supplies, phone, Internet, laundry, photocopies, club dues and, of course, the occasional night out on the town -- all costs that usually aren't covered in the financial aid package.

"We estimate that families will pay about $2,400 in personal and miscellaneous expenses each year, but that's just for our school," says Mark Warner, director of financial aid for the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "How much a student spends will depend on the location of the school and on the student's spending habits."

Perhaps $2,400 is enough for students in Iowa, but for those attending schools in such places as New York or Los Angeles, the increased cost of living can easily raise that figure to $3,000 or $4,000, in addition to heftier room-and-board fees. To figure out the hidden costs for each of your schools, ask your financial aid officer for an estimate of how much the average student at that school pays in miscellaneous expenses each year, and do some research on the estimated cost of living for the area. If you need help comparing locations, check out Bankrate's online cost-of-living comparison calculator.

Look at the long term
Unfortunately you won't be paying for just one year of college, but four. Whether your aid award can be renewed for all four years of college will be crucial in determining your financial future. According to Cynthia B. Deffenbaugh, financial aid director for the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., students receiving federal or private need-based scholarships, grants or loans (including Pell grants, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, Stafford loans and Perkins loans) can generally expect their aid offers to be renewed for all four years of school and to cover yearly tuition inflation.

"If the family's financial situation stays approximately the same, if they're Pell-eligible the first year, then they're likely to be Pell-eligible the next years. That goes for all need-based aid," she says. "Need-based aid is awarded depending on the student's demonstrated financial need, and that need is going to increase as the cost goes up."

Merit-based scholarships and grants such as school- and community-sponsored awards, as well as funds won in national scholarship competitions (including the National Merit Scholarship program), may or may not be renewable and frequently are awarded as fixed sums, so it's crucial to read the fine print and understand exactly what you're receiving and for how long, says Deffenbaugh.

While you're muddling through the fine print, make note of which requirements you'll need to fulfill in order to keep the cash coming in. Merit-based-aid awards may be tied to your grade point average, course load, choice of major, part-time job, membership in a club or participation on a sports team, so you'll need to be prepared to fulfill those obligations in order to maintain your college cash supply. Each school's aid award summary sheet should outline which awards are renewable, as well as any conditions you'll need to fulfill. However, if you have a question, contact the school's financial aid office immediately.

 
 
Next: "Plan for the worst (and best)."
Page | 1 | 2 |
 
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