Hidden Bargains: How to Get the Best Bang for Your Buck in the Financial Aid Game


Applying to and paying for college is just like shopping. Most people can’t wait to browse all the options available but are astonished by the price tag. However, if you know which schools offer the right merit-based and need-based aid for your family’s income bracket, there are plenty of ways to diffuse the seemingly inevitable student debt headache.

First, don’t decide that you don’t want any loans, but also don’t allow yourself to drown in debt for all of eternity. Think about your current family financial situation, what kind of career you might pursue and its anticipated salary. Remember to take into account whether you’ll need/want to attend graduate school, as most graduate programs offer little to no financial aid. With these components in mind, come up with a “loan budget.” When I applied to colleges, I didn’t want to owe any more than $20,000 by the time I graduated. I immediately crossed off any schools that would leave me in immense debt after four years. Keep a futuristic mindset when you’re shopping around for schools. Some colleges aren’t worth falling into a financial black hole.

There are many high-achieving students from low-income families who believe their status will result in perpetual debt if they choose to attend elite schools; however, nothing could be further from the truth. There are many top-tier colleges that promise to meet 100% of every student’s demonstrated financial need when they apply for aid. Some, like Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and Duke, even promise a $0 expected parent contribution if a student’s parents make less than a certain amount annually. And that certain amount can be as much as $120,000.

Now, what if you’re from a middle-income family and may not qualify for need-based aid? If this is you, your options may depend on the strength of your application. If you have straight A’s or a couple of B’s, lots of diverse curriculars or a couple to which you’re extremely dedicated, and competitive test scores, apply to reputable schools that aren’t considered elite status and go for every merit-based scholarship available. Some schools automatically consider every applicant for scholarships and some have a separate scholarship application, so make sure you double-check the protocol for each school. If your application is average, the most cost-effective option for you might be in-state tuition or a more affordable private college. Regardless, always apply for every merit-based and need-based scholarship offered by each school.

If those awards still don’t cut it, don’t fear, you will just have to dig a little deeper. There are all kinds of scholarships out there to apply for. Check your local Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and other youth and/or community-oriented organizations near you to see if they award scholarships. Your parents' employers are always a good resource as well, many companies offer scholarships for the children of employees. Also, seek the advice of your guidance/college counselor to see if they know of any available scholarships. Do not overlook the Internet–use your Google sleuthing skills to find the right matches for you!

At the end of the day, choose the college that feels right. It doesn’t have to be your most economical option, but you should be confident you won’t financially regret your decision in the future. Use the tips offered here, and you’ll be sure to have an unforgettable and affordable four years.

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