Comparing college financial aid offers

"If you just look at the financial -- which college is the least expensive -- you're discounting the social elements of college," says McGlone. "If a student isn't happy, they're going to leave, and usually not all credits will transfer over from one college to the next. It's a waste of money."

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly 60 percent of all college students attend more than one institution before graduating. Sixteen percent attend three colleges and 8 percent attend four. While some students save money by attending a low-cost community college before transferring to a pricier four-year institution, those who transfer from one four-year school to the next can easily lose a full semester or even a year's worth of credits in the process.

McGlone also encourages students to think about their financial situation after college when choosing a school.

"The high school class of 2009 is the biggest class of entering freshmen ever. That means there will be a large class of 2013, all looking for entry-level jobs," says McGlone. "The better the reputation a school has in terms of graduates getting hired, the better a chance you have of getting work."

To avoid a costly transfer or post-grad unemployment phase, McGlone recommends students revisit the schools they've been accepted to and choose one based on price, alumni job placement and fit instead of solely on cost.

Fill in the gap

After students have settled on a school, the only thing left to do is find financial aid to fill in the gap between the school's financial-aid offer and what parents and students can actually pay. Before resorting to loans, Reecy Aresty, financial aid consultant and author of "How To Pay For College Without Going Broke," advises students to ask for more help from the school by filing an appeal.

"I appeal 99 percent of all financial-aid offers," says Aresty. "You can't ask a college for more money. You have to ask them for help, possibly a re-evaluation of the financial aid package and, if things have changed, a professional judgment."

Aresty recommends students write to their aid officers explaining why they need more money and outlining any unique financial circumstances they may face. Instead of directly asking for scholarships, Aresty advises students to ask for items such as a work-study award "so that you can take an active part in paying for your education." Other negotiable matters may be an upgrade from unsubsidized federal loans to subsidized ones or a clothing allowance for students attending school in climatically different parts of the country.

Those who come up dry after filing an appeal may get a fiscal break through alternative aid programs. For example, the recently increased educational tax credits (which can provide up to a $2,500 credit for families of first-time undergraduate students this year) offer relief when you file your taxes. Also, academic reciprocation agreements allow students who plan to major in a subject that's not offered in their home state to attend a public school in a member state without paying out-of-state tuition. Of course, students can also reduce their college costs by testing out of introductory courses, landing a full-time staff position with the school they're attending or establishing residency near their school to avoid out-of-state tuition fees.

If it comes down to a decision between a school of choice with a low-ball aid offer and a less well-fitting institution with a juicy one, McGlone says to investigate scholarships with late deadlines and alternative aid offers, keeping the larger fiscal picture in mind.

"Families need to realize that they really do have financial options," says McGlone. "They're the ones in the driver's seat."


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