If you're trying to figure out how to pay for college, the first thing you should find out is your parents' plans — are they expecting you to pay for it or do they plan on helping you foot the bill? If they do, then you need to be discussing what may or may not be doable. College planning may seem like a long way off, especially the paying part, but it's not. Here's how you can get ready.
Preparing for financial aid
Finding and getting free money for college is a competition, and you should think of it that way! In just a year or two (or just a couple of months if you're a senior), you'll be submitting some kind of application for student aid, and the thing you need to know first is the deadlines. There are all kinds of deadlines for merit awards (funding given to you based on your academic ability or talents), as well as for money based on need (how much money you qualify for based on your family's financial situation). Each type of funding may have its own application deadline, even at the same school.
A good way to keep track of all these deadlines is to start making a list of financial application dates based on your initial college choices. Deadlines sometimes change from year to year, so keep a chart or spreadsheet of schools and their deadlines, and keep your parents informed of deadline dates as well, since they are part of finding financial aid information.
You might also try keeping a folder with anything and everything significant or cool that you've accomplished in academics, athletics, employment, or otherwise. Don't forget about any community service work you may have done — the fastest-growing source of free money is college community-service scholarships.
Persistence in searching for student aid
How often do you ask for something you really want? You ask until you get what you want, right? Well, the same strategy should be used for getting financial aid for college. You need to be persistent to win, and you need to ask the right questions of the right people at the right time. Think of this process as if you were in training. Training requires an attitude of doggedness, so adopt that attitude now, even if it's early in the process. Don't find yourself scrambling at the last minute to try to figure out how to pay for college. Stay informed and educated!
We advise repeating your research for student financial aid every year, because things do change. Do things such as determining which schools give the most non-need-based scholarships and which ones give the best overall financial aid based on need. Find out whose attendance costs have skyrocketed and whose have not. Look for patterns and remember to factor in room-and-board charges, because they can go up a lot as well.
Evaluate performance of colleges
According to an organization known as Education Trust, almost 1 out of every 5 four-year institutions in the U.S. graduates fewer than a third of their first-time, full-time degree-seeking freshmen within 6 years! What does that mean to you? Pick colleges that graduate their students within 4 years. It will surely be a lot cheaper, and you'll be earning a salary much sooner.
Start contacting the schools that interest you via email or letters. Inquire about merit scholarship opportunities and what percentage of need the school meets on average. Ask what you need to do to get student financial aid to attend that school. Start visiting, and include the financial aid office in your rounds. Meet with counselors to map out a plan for making their college affordable.
Be sure you start your campus visits during your junior year so you have time to comparison shop and to build a relationship with campus officials. Relationship building really does works, so performing well in these endeavors will pay off.
Get financial aid information early
Even though it's early, see if you can get a copy of a typical financial aid award letter from the colleges you might want to attend. This letter can give you a pretty good sense of whether a particular school is one you can actually afford. Look to see if they list not only how much money is given, but also the full cost of attendance and how much money is still due. Your payoff will be whoever is giving you the best deal.
Now is the time to determine where your best chances for financial aid for college are, so find out as soon as possible if you can expect to receive need-based aid or not. You'll probably find it very useful to use the spreadsheet you started earlier to analyze not only application dates, but also which schools are most likely to give you financial assistance as well. It's better for your family to know early on what the future holds for them, so you can all start planning accordingly.
By Carl Buck, who has more than 30 years of experience in guiding students, parents, and educators on matters related to financial aid.