1. Use this calculator at the start of the process.
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Your clients should check to see if they will qualify for need-based aid by using the College Board’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculator. An EFC, which is expressed as a dollar figure, represents what a family would be expected to pay, at a minimum, for one year of college.
If parents have a high EFC, which would disqualify them for need-based aid, they should look for schools that give merit aid to high-income students. Nearly all colleges and universities fall into that category. If parents generate a lower EFC, they should look for schools that provide strong need-based financial aid. Sadly, fewer institutions fall into that category.
2. Consider schools that aren’t on dream lists.
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The most popular schools—those with the instantly recognizable brand names—are the most expensive and in general are the least likely to provide merit scholarships to affluent students. The institutions at the top of the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings typically charge the most and dispense few, if any, merit scholarships because the competition to get into these schools is so fierce.
At Northwestern University, for instance, just 54 percent of students receive a discount in the form of merit aid and/or financial aid, but at nearby Lake Forest College, 98 percent of students do. Lesser-known private institutions have to try harder to attract students, which means giving nearly everybody a scholarship.
3. Look for extra scholarships.
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Most merit scholarships are given automatically when a teenager applies to a college. Students, however, should investigate whether a school offers additional scholarships that require a separate application. Many schools provide these extra scholarships for such things as particular academic majors; talents, like art and dance; and many activities, such as entrepreneurship or impressive volunteer work.
4. Encourage students to become resident assistants.
Parents should consider encouraging their children to apply to become dorm resident assistants. RAs often get their dorm room charge waived, and receive a salary. RA positions can be in demand, so your child should find out what the deadlines are as soon as they start their first year of college.
5. Understand the first offer isn’t always the last.
A student shouldn’t automatically accept a school’s first offer since it’s actually a buyer’s market at most colleges. Families can generally improve their chances of obtaining a better offer if the teenager has obtained higher awards from other institutions. Schools will routinely want to see the competing offers.
6. Pocket a quick tax deduction.
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In many states, parents who are in the process of writing checks for college can capture a state tax deduction worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars by first moving the college cash into a 529 plan for as little as 24 hours.
The vast majority of states offer tax deductions for their 529 plans, but they don't stipulate how long the money needs to sit in an account. Before proceeding, clients should check with their state plan to make sure it hasn't imposed a waiting period for contributions to qualify for state tax deductions.
7. Be smart about college loans.
The best loan to obtain is the Federal Direct Loan with a current interest rate of 3.76 percent that is designed exclusively for students. A student should take the maximum Direct Loan before looking for other alternatives, such as the Federal Parent Plus Loan and private college loans.
8. Shrink the car insurance bill.
If a child isn’t bringing a car to college, parents should ask their auto insurer to lower their premium. Some insurers will dramatically reduce the price if a child doesn’t bring a car to college. My insurer even allowed my daughter to drive during Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring breaks at home with the significantly lower premium.
9. Think twice about transferring.
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Transferring happens more than you think. About a third of students who start at four-year private and public colleges and universities transfer.
Cost-conscious parents should be leery if their child wants to transfer from one college to another because it can boost the price of a bachelor’s degree considerably. Transfer students will often lose academic credits, and any financial aid and/or merit aid is usually lower than what is offered to freshmen.
10. Graduate early.
Teenagers should inquire about whether Advanced Placement test scores or dual enrollment classes taken at a local college as high school students would be accepted for credit. Starting college with academic credits can boost a child’s chances of graduating early.
A friend of mine encouraged her daughter to graduate early from Mount Holyoke College, an expensive liberal arts institution, by offering to give her half of the money she would save if she graduated in 3½ years. The enticement worked.