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For many alumni, the personal connection with their school runs deep. That’s particularly the case when attending wouldn’t have even been possible if it hadn’t been for the institution’s financial aid package. Indeed, colleges can have a way of making you feel fiscally at home.

With the growing gap between tuition and fee hikes and increases in state and federal student aid funding, more and more pressure is being placed on schools to expand their aid programs. Often it’s the only way to remain competitive.

Look at what various schools may offer before you apply and again when the acceptance letters arrive in the mail.

Beyond federal aid such as Pell grants and Stafford loans — awarded through schools based on a need formula — here are some forms of aid to keep an eye out for when considering schools:

Merit scholarships: These awards, which cover up to the entire cost of a student’s education, are what parents’ dreams are made of. While some consider need, rewarding talent — athletic, academic, artistic or otherwise — is the primary purpose of a merit scholarship. Yet the pressure’s on, as continuing to meet a minimum grade point average or other criteria is key to maintaining the scholarship. Smaller awards, such as a scholarship for getting a minimum standardized test score, may be offered to any qualifying student university-wide. Larger awards, meanwhile, are highly competitive. Top schools may purposely offer no aid based on merit.

Scholarships/grants by major: These awards are designed to encourage enrollment in under-represented major fields of study. They may also aim to get a diverse student body in a particular major, i.e. a scholarship for women and minorities in engineering. Scholarships established in honor or in memory of a person may relate to any number of majors. They may be need or non-need based.

Work-study: It’s a traditional way of meeting the costs of higher education. Whether through an on-campus job (think dining hall and department office gigs) or one located out in the community, work-study involves the student working part time to help cover costs. Restrictions, such as the need to stay in the same job for the entire semester or year, may be in place.

The following financial aid policies and incentives may also be used by a particular school to attract students:

On-campus employment. Less formal than work-study, these jobs enable students to earn money for any reason, including helping cover tuition and fees. Financial aid offices may assist students in securing jobs.

Monthly payment plans. Tuition rates can seem a lot more palatable when spread out over 10 to 12 months. Better yet, many of these plans are interest-free.

Block tuition rates. These are flat tuition rates covering a range of credits. The most motivated students may take an increased number of credit hours per semester, enabling them to make that graduation walk come more quickly.

Class time incentives. Be willing to take classes during slow periods at the University of Oregon, for example, and pay less. Not surprisingly, those non-peak periods include early morning and Friday afternoons.

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Maximizing your chances for aid

It all starts with school selection. Large, well-established institutions generally have the most money to award. Smaller regional colleges, meanwhile, may be looking to roll out the red carpet to students who are desirable, such as those who would likely be in the top of the class.

Following the financial aid process rules are crucial to getting a good aid package. That means checking in with the school at the beginning of the process and hitting all deadlines. Besides the required Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, institutions may ask for a Profile form and/or their own financial aid form (often included with admissions materials) to be considered.

The earlier applications are in, the better.

The process doesn’t end as freshman year begins. Applying for renewal of aid is mandatory.

Families often wonder about the possibility of negotiating for a better aid package. Unfortunately, with stringent rules about need, the bargaining game may well be over before it starts.

Yet, if a student is awarded a much better package from one school, contacting a second school may be beneficial. And make sure the financial aid office is aware of any unusual circumstances the first school has taken into account.

Still, a survey of 1,492 colleges by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the College Board found that only 1 percent of public colleges and 2 percent of private colleges frequently or always adjust financial aid packages to reflect another college’s offer. In response to a family’s stated inability to pay, 5 percent of public colleges and 10 percent of private institutions do adjust financial aid packages after a review.

As for the concept of two schools bidding against each other to woo a top student, it’s more than unlikely, experts say. Yet a few schools have been known to be open about their practices of suggesting that students submit any competing offers for review.

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