Did you know that states give almost $680 million in financial aid to students every year, which accounted for about 7.4% of the average need-based college student’s aid package in 2007-08, according to an analysis of the latest data by FinAid.org? Now that number’s expected to drop so, for all the parents of college students out there, we have compiled some thoughts on how to get free financial aid for your college student. There are no national numbers as of yet, but reports of state cuts are trickling in: For the next academic year, Illinois will reduce its maximum awards by 5% and Texas’ legislature has proposed a 41% reduction in its largest grant program. Already this year, New York cut awards from its largest grant program by about 2%. And now, some state executives are saying that grants awarded to students in their financial aid package over the next few weeks may never arrive; other students could wait months for the money, which could put students in a bind with the bursar’s office. “In some states it could happen,” says Sandy Baum, a higher education policy analyst and consultant for the College Board.
What schools provide the best financial aid for college? It’s an excellent question to ask if you are going to need financial aid for school. Most families, by the way, fall into that category. The most generous schools meet the full financial need of their students. Just a fraction of colleges and universities, however, can make that promise because it requires a huge student financial aid commitment. In fact, according to a new U.S. News & World Report survey, only 63 schools out of 1,700 colleges and universities claim that they meet their students’ full financial need. You can see the U.S. News story below. When evaluating the generosity of schools, you will want to discover if schools include just grants (free money) and a work/study job in their financial aid packages. Nearly all schools also include loans in their packages so when researching schools, check the breakdown of loans versus grants. You can find that kind of information within profiles of individual schools on the websites of the College Board and COLLEGEdata.
Officially, students have a long time to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. In practice, students have typically had until June to get a shot at state grants. Not anymore. Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee have already announced that FAFSAs should be submitted immediately, and they will dole out grants in the order of applications received, until the money’s gone. In a break with the traditional trends, families should no longer wait until their tax returns are ready to file the FAFSA, says Mark Kantrowitz, founder of FinAid.org, which tracks financial aid trends. Just get it in ASAP, with estimates using a W-2 and 1099 forms and the last pay stub of the year, and update the actual numbers once they’re ready. This way, the FAFSA is filed on time while grant money is still up for grabs.
Ignore the bottom line
Typically, when financial aid packages arrive, students look at the total amount of free aid they’re offered. But now, as state aid becomes less reliable, students may want to ignore state grants – at least temporarily – and then compare the aid packages, says Rod Bugarin, a former financial aid officer at Brown and Columbia universities. He advises looking for the school that offers to cover the biggest portion of tuition and fees with its own grants, which are guaranteed. Because while one financial aid package might look better because of the free state aid, that money might fall through. By comparing college grants instead, students can make sure that they’re attending the most affordable college even if state aid is delayed or falls through. Also, if it isn’t offered in the financial aid package, ask for work study, which colleges in conjunction with the federal government dole out to students for part-time work. And while those jobs are often coveted, an easier way to get one is to ask for community service jobs: The federal government requires community service to make up about 7% of work-study positions at each college, says Kantrowitz.
Search for scholarships
Financial aid practices have discouraged third-party scholarships, because many colleges will take away the grants they award students as a result. But now, students must contend with increased competition for state and school aid – FAFSAs filed for the 2010-11 academic year so far are up 10% to 19.5 million, according to the Department of Education — and states like Iowa and Minnesota say they’re giving less to each student in order to provide aid for more applicants. Because the competition for grants is stiffer, there’s less reason to worry about losing them if a student gets a scholarship. And scholarships from large companies and associations are more likely to come through, says Kantrowitz. Outside scholarship policies vary by school, but the most generous allow scholarships to substitute for federal student loans from the financial aid package.