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Uncle Sam is hardly the only one who can be financially hospitable when it comes to college. Have you greeted your state higher education agency recently? Chances are the folks there can help prevent tuition-bill shock.

State aid programs take many forms — and may award aid based on any combination of need and merit, with need-based aid growing at a faster clip than aid based on other factors.

First, some fast facts about state aid, according to a 2002-2003 National Association of State Grant and Aid Programs survey:

  • 3 states have undergraduate state programs based solely on need, with 37 percent of all aid reserved as need-based.
  • 27 states have programs based solely on merit, with 18 percent of all aid reserved as merit-based.
  • 25 percent of state aid programs are based on both need and merit.
  • Aid programs cover both public and private institutions, with a higher percentage of state totals going to public, in-state institutions.

In recent years states have been bucking the tradition of giving aid funds directly to colleges, allowing them to offer lower tuition rates. The new game in town involves giving aid directly to students and families. So it’s more important than ever to get the scoop on offerings. You can find your state agency’s home page online at FinAid.

Then consider these possibilities of your state aid investigation:

Tuition discounts for in-state education. It’s a fact: Attending an in-state public institution can save big bucks. In other words, a semester of school may well be in the single-digit thousands rather than in double-digit territory. Students not currently living in the desired institution’s state are not necessarily out of luck. Requirements to qualify for that in-state rate vary from state to state, but may be defined as anything from living in the state for a year to simply getting a driver’s license there or even purchasing a home in the state.

Home-tuition pricing. Using an in-state benefit doesn’t have to mean actually being a resident in that state. Through agreements between individual colleges, some students may only have to pay their own state’s resident tuition when they attend college in another state.

Tuition waivers. Likewise, out-of-state students may qualify for a tuition waiver. These waivers, allowed by some states and awarded at the institution’s discretion, mean reduced tuition for non-residents.

Reciprocity agreements. These deals allow some students to attend school out-of-state at reduced tuition rates and may be offered either by states or individual institutions. The rate is typically higher than the in-state resident rate but lower than what out-of-state residents generally pay. Often the incentive for institutions is less pressure to maintain separate programs in some fields of study. Because reciprocity deals are often between neighboring states, a student living near a state border may find it’s practical to attend the closest college to home, whether or not it means crossing that border. Different deals may apply, depending on what college is chosen and enrollment status. Washington state residents, for instance, can pay in-state tuition at Oregon community colleges or in-state tuition at Portland State IF they take eight or less credits a semester. In some states, both public and private institutions participate in reciprocity programs. The programs are often administered by regional consortiums, such as the Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market, the New England Board of Higher Education’s New England Regional Student Program, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Student Exchange Programs and the Midwest Higher Education Compact’s Midwest Student Exchange Program.

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Merit scholarships. Often limited to students attending college in state, these awards are based on a student’s academic achievement and help encourage the “best” students to remain in their home state. Some states promise merit scholarships to any graduating senior meeting a minimum requirement.

Portable grants. Some state grants allow recipients to attend college elsewhere. There may be restrictions on what states and colleges these grants can be used for, however.

Private college grants.

Choosing an independent institution of higher learning doesn’t have to mean foregoing state aid. Special need-based grant programs may apply to in-state private universities.

Conditional grants. Meet the stated obligations, which may include maintaining a certain grade point average, and these grants are simply gifts. But for those who don’t meet those requirements these gifts become loans.

Interest-free loans. Speaking of borrowing, some states offer loans without the burden of interest. Sure, you have to pay them back, but as long as you do so within a stated amount of time, you won’t be paying more than you used.

Special purpose programs. Looking at nursing or teaching? These and other occupations with an employee shortage have been the impetus for some state programs that provide reduced, or even free, tuition for students planning to enter the field. Special purpose programs may also be geared toward veterans, parents or spouses of people killed or disabled during service to the community or country, and other groups.

Higher education vouchers. In 2004, Colorado became the first state to authorize this type of system. Under the College Opportunity Fund program, money traditionally used to subsidize tuition at state colleges goes directly to students as a stipend and can be used at the private or public institution of choice. The program was implemented in part because students, particularly low-income students and minorities, often went unaware of the state’s potential contribution to their college education. In addition, colleges now have to compete for the state funds by making their programs and services attractive to students.

How to get it: Staking claim to state aid

To apply for most state loan, grant and scholarship programs, look no further than that trusty Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The U.S. Department of Education forwards the information on FAFSA applications to the state student assistance agency in any state where the student is applying. And don’t miss those deadlines, or the state aid may be gone.

One more tip: Consider carefully when to spend the funds invested in pre-paid tuition programs or 529 savings plans. With pre-paid tuition plans, it’s generally best to use them up on early tuition bills so the family has a better chance of receiving financial aid in subsequent years. With 529 plans, consider holding off as long as possible before tapping the funds. After all, the longer money is in a 529, the more chance it has to grow tax-free. After the last financial aid form of a student’s undergrad career is filed (typically January of junior year), it’s time to spend. Any leftover funds can be rolled into a family member’s 529.

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