Finding the money you need to attend a two- or four-year institution or vocational/career college is a challenge, but you can do it if you devise a strategy.

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Start planning for financial aid early

Finding the money you need to attend a two- or four-year institution or vocational/career college is a challenge, but you can do it if you devise a strategy well before you actually start applying.

Student financial aid comes from many different sources and is available to help meet both direct educational costs (tuition, fees, books) and personal living expenses (food, housing, transportation).

Don't be afraid to negotiate
Times have changed to favor the student in the financial aid for college process. Because the pool of potential traditional college students is somewhat limited, colleges and universities are competing to attract the top students to their school.

In fact, some colleges and universities not only use aid as a method to help students pay for college but often as a marketing and recruitment tool. This puts students and families at an advantage, one that should be recognized and used for bargaining power.

You and your family should be assertive in negotiating college financial aid packages. It used to be that there was no room for such negotiation, but in today's environment, it is wise to be a comparison shopper.

Families should wait until they've received all of their financial offers and then talk to their first-choice college to see if that college can match the better offers from other schools.

Eligibility for government aid
To be eligible to receive federal/state financial aid, students must maintain satisfactory academic progress toward a degree or certificate. This criterion is established by each college or university. Students also need a valid social security number, and all male students must register for selective service on their eighteenth birthday.

The FAFSA
You apply for student financial aid during your senior year of high school. Every school requires the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which cannot be filed until after January 1 of your senior year.

You must complete the FAFSA if you want to be considered for federal student aid. Your application will be processed in about four weeks if you use the paper application or about one week if you apply on line at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

You'll then receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which will report the information from the FAFSA and show your calculated Expected Family Contribution (EFC—the number used in determining your eligibility for federal aid). Each school you listed on the application, as well as your state of legal residence, will also receive your FAFSA information.

The PROFILE
If you are applying to higher-cost colleges or some scholarship programs, you also may have to file the PROFILE application. This should be completed in September or October of your senior year. More information on the PROFILE is available from your high school guidance office or on the Web at www.collegeboard.com. There is a fee charged with the PROFILE.

Reapplying or transferring
You must reapply for federal student aid every year. If you decide to transfer to another school, your aid doesn't necessarily go with you. You'll need to check with your new school to find out what steps you must take to continue receiving aid. You should plan any transfer at least three months in advance.

Talk to the college financial aid office

Once you've decided which schools you want to apply to, talk to the financial aid officers of those schools. There is no substitute for getting information from the source when it comes to understanding financial aid information. That personal contact can lead you to substantial amounts of financial aid for college.

If you qualify for admission, don't let the sticker price of the college or program scare you away, because you may get enough financial assistance to pay for the education you want.

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