Target merit aid
If you don't qualify for need-based aid, seek out merit-based aid instead. According to Meritaid.com, a search engine for finding merit awards, each year schools hand out approximately $11 billion in non-need-based aid. Unfortunately, students frequently miss out because they simply don't apply.
"People think, 'I'm not a straight-A student, so I'll never get a merit (award),' but that's not the case," says Chris Long, president of Cappex, Meritaid.com's parent company. "Some schools only give recognition to the top-tier students, but others give merit aid for extracurricular activities, too."
Long says students can increase their merit aid eligibility by seeking out local and national awards and by narrowing their college hunt to schools most likely to hand them free money.
"One of the things schools really value is students from other parts of the country, so try to target schools that are outside of your geographic area," he says. "You should also apply to schools where you're at the upper end of the academic scale. You're going to be very attractive to those schools because they want to increase their average GPA, SAT and ACT (scores)."
"If your academic credentials place you in the top quarter of an incoming class at a private college, you're probably going to have a merit award that's equivalent to half tuition," says Ruth Vedvik, co-author of "The Financial Aid Handbook."
"At the top 100 brand institutions in the country, that's just not going to happen because those institutions give very little merit aid," she says.
Students can start the hunt for high merit aid institutions by visiting the College Navigator website and researching how much money families in their income bracket pay on average. As of October 2011, all institutions will also be required to include a net price calculator on their respective websites.
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