5. Be polite and don't "negotiate"
Parents and students who see financial aid officers as adversaries instead of partners are often missing the point -- and could end up missing out on aid, says Craig Powell, president and CEO of ConnectEDU.net.
"Financial aid officers got into this business because they're interested in helping young people realize their educational dreams, but they're making decisions with limited information," he says. "An adversarial approach won't motivate people to help you. Helping financial aid officers get an honest picture of the situation you're in is much more effective."
Financial aid officers bristle at the idea of "negotiating." Their job is to help meet the financial needs of students -- not help them get a bargain.
With tighter budgets, increased financial need and rules set by Congress for awarding financial aid, financial aid offices are feeling the pinch. Showcase your real financial need, not your haggling skills, if you want to get extra financial assistance.
6. Read the fine print on the stimulus package
The stimulus package recently signed into law includes some significant perks for college students, says Powell.
Pell Grants will be bumped from a maximum of $4,731 to $5,350, starting July 1, and to $5,500 for the 2010-2011 academic year. The package also boosts the tuition tax credit from a maximum of $1,800 to $2,500. It's also partially refundable, meaning that those who don't earn enough to pay taxes can still receive help.
7. Get the best kind of aid
As you look at your financial aid package, be sure you understand the difference between the types of aid. It is a simple but occasionally overlooked point that grants and scholarships don't have to be paid back, while loans do, says Hill.
"Anybody can go out and get debt -- that's not difficult to do," he says. "Always look to get the good kind of aid -- the kind that doesn't need to be paid back."
8. Don't be afraid to ask
Though tuition is rising and financial aid budgets often haven't kept up, that doesn't mean your case isn't worth a phone call or a letter, ScholarshipStreet.com's Stezala says.
"You have nothing to lose but 10 minutes for a phone call or an hour for a letter," she says. "Even if you don't win the scholarship money, you'll gain self-advocacy skills that will take you a long way on campus. You'll have vested interest in your education."
And if you're lucky, that phone call could bring you thousands of dollars more for your education.
9. On-campus jobs are an option
Even if you don't qualify for a work-study package, inquire about on-campus jobs. Schools often offer a range of opportunities for students, whether it's scraping dishes at the dining hall or organizing lab equipment. Many savvy students are able to get work in a department related to their field of study, which may help them in their schoolwork and future career.
10. Get forms in on time
In the world of financial aid, time really is money. If you meet deadlines, you're far more likely to get aid. With schools' limited resources and even greater demand on that funding, it's even more important for students to get their FAFSA forms in as early as possible.
The federal deadline for FAFSA forms is June 30, but many schools require the paperwork well before that time. As an incoming freshman, when applying for aid from several schools, find out the school with the earliest deadline and use that date for all of them.
"If students don't meet priority deadlines, they may not receive aid even if they're eligible, because the funding was already allocated," Carney says. "That's the best advice I can give this year, because most schools will not have the resources to offset the financial need for the number of students who are eligible."