Your college-bound kids may be looking forward to the upcoming summer break from high school classes. And before you know it, you'll be attending their commencement ceremonies. But while your children are still sophomores, juniors and seniors, they have extra homework to do. Make sure they complete these assignments to maximize their college financial aid eligibility.
Finalize your schedule. Your children should increase their chances of getting free college cash by keeping their grades high and taking a rigorous curriculum, advises Lisa Bleich, president of College Bound Mentor, an education consulting firm in Westfield, N.J.
"Students who do well in school and are at the top of their class tend to get good financial aid packages," she says.
The more academically competitive the student is, the better his or her chances of landing merit aid. Before graduation, Bleich advises underclassmen to double check their schedules to make sure they're taking challenging courses.
Have "the talk." If you haven't talked to your children about what you can financially contribute to their education, now's the time. They need to know what's expected of them. Students who understand their family's college budget early have longer to find scholarships and research aid-generous schools than students who wait.
"By sophomore year, it's time to start getting realistic about (financial) expectations," says Tommy Blair, director of financial aid at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. "Students should know what they can afford before applying to schools."
Check in with guidance. Before summer hits, Sean View, director of financial aid for Westminster College in Salt Lake City, recommends that sophomores discuss future college plans and scholarship opportunities for high school underclassmen with their guidance counselor or adviser.
"(Scholarship) opportunities really start in the junior and senior years," View says. "Students should get a feel for what's available while they're sophomores so they're ready."
View also recommends that sophomores reach out to community groups for information on local awards.
Shift your assets. When calculating financial aid packages, colleges expect dependent students to fork over a larger percentage of their assets than their parents. The Department of Education reports that for every dollar in an account in a parent's name, the government subtracts up to 6 cents from the student's financial aid package. For every dollar in an account in the student's name -- other than 529 plans -- the government subtracts 20 cents.
To maximize their package, students should spend down their own funds the year before applying for financial aid, says Linda Jacobs, director of College Placement Services, a higher-education consulting firm based in Seattle.
"If, for example, the student needs a computer for college, buy it in advance so that the student is showing less money," she says.
Pick your schools. The easiest way to score hefty aid is by applying to schools most likely to hand it over. While you're finalizing your list of potential schools, research each school's net price, average merit aid package, and average GPA, SAT and ACT scores for entering freshmen.