Getting into college is hard enough, but figuring out how to pay for it is another hurdle altogether.
Higher education already costs more than most families can afford, and college costs are still rising. Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $53,430 in the 2022-2023 school year; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $23,250, according to the College Board.
Add on the growing financial strain of inflation and a four-year degree is almost out of reach.
These days, most students and their parents rely on a combination of resources, including student loans to cover the tab — making a school’s financial aid award letter just as important as the acceptance letter.
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1. Apply for financial aid
In ordinary years, high school graduates miss out on billions in federal grants because they don’t apply for financial aid. Many families mistakenly assume they won’t qualify and don’t even bother to fill out an application.
Even now, many families haven’t applied for financial aid.
As of February, 38.4% of the high school class of 2023 had completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form, according to the National College Attainment Network. (The FAFSA season for the 2023-24 academic year opened Oct. 1, but students who haven’t filed can still apply.)
“It’s not too late,” said Mary Jo Terry, a managing partner at Yrefy, a private student loan refinancing company.
For families who have already filed the FAFSA but are still concerned about making ends meet, it is also possible to amend their FAFSA form or ask the college financial aid office for more aid, particularly if you’ve experienced a change in your financial situation, such as a job loss or a disability, according to Kalman Chany, a financial aid consultant and author of The Princeton Review’s “Paying for College.”
2. Negotiate for more school aid
For starters, understand the formula colleges use to come up with the expected family contribution. Financial aid is determined by income information that is not necessarily up to date. For instance, aid for 2023-24 academic year is based on 2021 income.
Further, “it’s not so much what you can afford to pay but what you can afford to finance,” Chany said.
If your circumstances are now different, that should be brought to the financial aid office’s attention with documentation.
But first, also make sure you understand the financial aid award letter — particularly the difference between scholarships and loans, whether those funds are renewable for all four years and if they come with contingencies such as maintaining a certain grade point average.
Then, prepare a response with documentation showing any changes in assets, income, benefits or expenses. If the financial aid package from another comparable school was better, that is also worth documenting in an appeal.
“Syrupy” letters aren’t as effective as taking a more quantitative approach, Chany advised.
“This is a business transaction,” he said. “They are trying to meet their enrollment goals and maintain revenue.”
To that end, “play hard to get,” he added. Don’t post wearing the school sweatshirt on social media or make any moves to give the indication that you will enroll anyway.
Colleges are likely receptive to appeals, Chany said, but “it’s not a buyers’ market like it was at the onset of the pandemic.”
3. Leverage private scholarships
Otherwise, consider other sources for merit-based aid, Terry advised. “There is so much money out there that people don’t even know is available.”
In fact, there are more than 1.7 million private scholarships and fellowships available, often funded by foundations, corporations and other independent organizations, with a total value of more than $7.4 billion, according to higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz.
“Every 40 hours you spend applying for scholarships and grants will result in $10,000, on average,” Yrefy’s Terry has calculated.
Check with the college, or ask your high school counselor about opportunities. You can also search websites like Scholarships.com and the College Board.