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College Financial Aid: Early Bird Gets the Loot

If you are a college-bound student--or responsible for one--it’s time to get cracking. Financial aid deadlines are fast approaching, and if you miss the deadlines, you could miss out on thousands of dollars in tuition aid.

“Applying late doesn’t mean you won’t get aid, but you can get a lot more if you meet the priority deadlines,” says Kalman A. Chany, author of “Paying for College,” an annual volume about maximizing student aid.

Priority deadlines are dates that each school’s financial aid office sets for receipt of financial aid applications. These deadlines help the school plan how to parcel out school-based grants and scholarships that are largely dispensed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Many of these priority deadlines mesh with dates the various states have set for granting public scholarships and grants. California’s deadline is March 2.

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Indeed, any student who plans to go to college in September ought to start filling out financial aid forms now, even if the state or college deadline is months away. That’s because public aid is just the first step in paying for college.

Often students will receive less public aid than they need, forcing them to search for so-called “private donor awards.” The search for private donors takes time.

In other words, delay increases your chances of missing out on lucrative opportunities.

Applying for student financial aid is not easy. It requires filling out and sending in tax returns and at least one lengthy application.

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If you’re going to a private school, you may need to complete two or more such applications. Private scholarships usually have forms of their own.

The good news is that no one is too poor to go to college--or too rich to apply for student aid. Thanks to both a restructuring of financial aid formulas and liberal aid policies at many campuses, there is some form of aid available to nearly everyone.

However, the amount and type will depend on the student’s and parents’ income and assets. Public grants and scholarships--aid that doesn’t have to be repaid--generally go to needy students, while middle- and upper-income students can get low-interest loans. Nearly anyone can apply for one or several private scholarships administered by the school or a club, trade group or corporation.

The amount of aid ranges from a few hundred dollars to every dollar necessary to go to college.

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Ironically, low-income students often are better off attending expensive private colleges rather than less-costly state schools, because many pricey private universities have “100%-need” formulas. These take into account the cost of tuition, books, housing, food, transportation and all other key college expenses. They then provide the student with a package of grants, scholarships, work-study arrangements and loans rich enough to pay for everything--provided the student has no other means of paying for college.

Where do you start when applying for aid? The first step is to fill out the “free application for federal student aid.” High school guidance counselors typically have these forms for the asking, as do college financial aid officers. Some private schools require additional aid forms, available from the school financial aid office.

About three weeks after you send in the federal application, you’ll get a “student aid report,” which is also sent to the colleges you have specified.

The colleges then put together aid packages combining federal, state and college scholarships, work-study programs and student loans. But this package is not necessarily the final word, Chany says.

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Financial aid officers have substantial authority. Good students who get better aid offers from their second-choice schools may be able to increase the offer from their first-choice college by bartering with the financial aid officer, Chany notes.

Additionally, there are hundreds of sources of private scholarships and grants. But it’s up to the student--or parent--to find these sources and apply for them separately, since they generally are not included in the financial aid package provided by the college.

Enterprising students may be able to secure thousands of additional dollars in private aid.


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