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How to pay for college

According to Harold Simansky, founder of Educational Investments, LLC, an investment advisory firm determined to demystify the college-planning process, this is the average cost today for four years at a private university including tuition, room and board and general expenses. He says that even a public school education can cost about $50,000. Of course, these figures are for a teenager entering college today. New parents can expect to pay more than $250,000 to put their child through a private, four-year college.

Now that you’ve recovered from the sticker shock, consider these tips and inside information to make the college application process a bit easier to endure and finance.

Save, save, save

Simansky says the most important advice he can give anyone is “Start saving as soon as possible. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.” By starting from day one, parents can cover a $250,000 college bill by saving $600 each month. Parents who start saving when their child turns 10 must cough up $2,000 a month. Wait until age 16, and that figure sky rockets to $10,000 a month to catch up!

State sponsored Section 529 college savings plans offer an investment and saving option as well but vary greatly by state so check with your financial advisor.

Never fear, when the money runs out, there are other avenues to pursue. A solid savings plan can help offset college expenses, and solid academics and financial aid can usually make up the rest.

Scholarship search

Sifting through all the scholarship options out there can be extremely intimidating. Scholarship Coach Ben Kaplan is a paying-for-college expert and creator of How to Go to College Almost for Free: 10 Days to Scholarship Success, a 10-day multimedia course available on www.ScholarshipCoach.com. “Don’t let the scholarship process intimidate you,” emphasizes Kaplan. “There are scholarships available for everyone, regardless of grades, background or financial circumstances. If I had to conduct my scholarship search all over again, I would have started sooner and I would have applied for even more college scholarships.” Kaplan won nearly $90,000 from two dozen scholarship awards as a high school and college student, enabling him to graduate from Harvard virtually for free.

Kaplan’s suggestions include:

Search for as many scholarships as possible. To leverage your chances to win, target both large and small awards, in diverse areas of interest, on both the national and local level.

Tap into Internet scholarship databases (most of which are free).Go to ScholarshipCoach.com for direct links to the leading databases and advice on how best to use them.

Develop a central theme in your scholarship applications that conveys your talents, passions and potential. Include personal experiences and perspectives that focus on who you are, not just what you’ve done.

Save time by bridging multiple scholarships with every application you complete. Develop a suite of reusable material and custom-tailor this material to fit the judging criteria of each new scholarship.

Consult past scholarship winners about their strategies and analyze past winning entries. The best way to master the scholarship game is to learn from those who play it well.

Financial aid

The first step in applying for federal and state financial aid is for students and parents to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This should be done as soon as possible after Jan. 1. You don’t need to have completed your taxes in order to complete the FAFSA; a final pay stub will usually suffice.

The student’s prospective university uses the information from the student’s FAFSA plus the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to create a financial aid package which outlines eligibility for loans, grants, scholarships and work study. The EFC is the out-of-pocket amount parents will be expected to contribute to their child’s education and is based on income and assets. An EFC calculator is available at www.finaid.org/calculators/finaidestimate.phtml.

During the process of accepting or declining these types of financial aid, parents and students will be asked to choose a lender to work with.

With deadlines to keep track of, tests to take and so many forms to submit, applying for college can be a full time job. Parents should encourage students to continue to focus on their grades (senior year really does count!) while partnering with them to work through the college admissions process. Students can also leverage their school’s guidance counselors to help make the application process more manageable. Don’t lose heart, with a little planning your seniors will be college-bound in no time!

Step by step: Applying for financial aid

1: Get a PIN number at www.pin.ed.gov. Parents and students need separate PIN numbers.

2: Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after Jan. 1 at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

3: Review your SAR (Student Aid Report) and submit any changes. With a PIN, the SAR is available online at www.fafsa.ed.gov/studentaccess.htm.

4: Enroll in classes as enrollment status affects awards, check with your school to see if any other aid forms are required and meet all application deadlines.

5: Accept or decline the financial aid for which you qualify in your Award Letter.

6: To receive a Stafford or PLUS loan, select a lender, submit a completed loan application and complete entrance counseling (Stafford).
7: Sign for funds when they arrive.

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