What will college cost? How do I apply for scholarships and qualify for financial aid?

Financial aid is a complex topic, but it is the one part of the process in which parents must be centrally involved or even take the lead. Before parents file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which becomes available on January 1st each year and must be filed by March 1st, read about the various federal programs that use this process to establish qualification for need-based aid. 

By federal mandate, every college must post a net-cost calculator to allow prospective students to estimate their individual coast of attendance. The National Center for Educational Statistics has incorporated these tools in its profiles of schools on College Navigator. This website also profiles breakdowns on types of aid (federal, state, institutional) and amounts; it also allows students to see how many students graduated with each major and department, which provides some measure of how the school allocates its resources. 

Merit aid is a more discretionary form of scholarship. To qualify for these sources of financing, which are not based on need, the applicant should be in the top 10-20th percentile of admitted students. Some of the most competitive colleges do not offer merit aid through the admissions process (although these same well endowed schools may lavish funds on admitted students, just not use them to attract students to apply).

San Diego writer and education blogger Lynn O’Shaughnessy has become the go-to information source on financial aid. She walks through the process of finding the schools that are the most generous with merit aid, meeting the largest percentage of need with grants, not loans, and evaluates schools based on job and salary outcomes. 

Kiplinger publishes rankings of Best Values in public and private colleges and universities, including information on average debt at graduation.

Michelle Kretzchmar (DIY education blogger) provides lists that rank colleges by financial aid, for example, which public universities cost the least. Kretzchmar has many useful articles explaining various aspects of college cost that includes comparisons among schools. 

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