College Financial Aid Secrets

By: Jennifer Merritt

Are you college cash confused? If you are, look to the college financial aid experts to provide insight into some of the dollar dilemmas that keep you awake at night.

How can I maximize my college financial aid eligibility? The number one thing you can do is fill out the free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), says Michael O'Brien, CEO of This will help you qualify for federal aid and school-based assistance. Next, he says, contact your financial aid office to see what aid is available, learn about any upcoming scholarship or grant deadlines, and ask about work-study programs. Finally, go online to inquire about scholarships. Applying for anything and everything you can will only increase the odds of you attaining enough college financial aid.

What's the difference between a grant and a scholarship? Both grants and scholarships are considered "free money," says O'Brien, meaning they typically do not have to be repaid. Grant aid, such as the federal Pell Grant, can come from federal and state government agencies as well as from individual colleges. Scholarships are usually awarded based on merit or special circumstances. What's surprising to some, is that student loans are factored in as part of a university financial aid package. That's because Federal student loan programs offer lower interest rates and additional support.

Is it true you can negotiate a university financial aid package? If your school of choice offers you a package that does not meet the total cost of education, give them a call, urges O'Brien. Explain your situation, and why you need additional funding to enable you to attend the school. If you are a student who is attractive to the school - whether it's your grades, athletic performance, or talents that make you an ideal candidate - you'll find that many university financial aid offices will try to assist you with a more competitive package. In addition, if special circumstances should arise - like the death or disability of a parent, loss of income, etc. - you should provide documentation and ask that your choice schools reassess your financial aid package.

How do I compare financial aid packages? Make sure you're evaluating apples to apples and oranges to oranges, says Cynthia Bailey, executive director of The College Board. Look at your net out-of-pocket cost: the school's budget for the type of student you are [i.e. commuter or resident], then subtract the amount of money the school gives you. Also compare the kind of awards you get, like loans and grants. For the most part, be sure to evaluate financial aid based on whether that school is the best fit for you, not if it's the cheapest.

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Jennifer Merritt is a frequent contributor to The CollegeBound Network. Learn more about finding a school or career that's right for you!

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