How to get the best college financial aid package

Photo Credit: MGN

(CBS News) – It’s crunch time as families weigh financial aid offers from multiple colleges. And anxiety over the potential of going into six-figure debt can keep them awake for many a night.

Although not every college submits a complete financial aid offer after they send out acceptance letters, most do. That puts a sharp focus on the decision — for parents and the student — about whether it’s worth go into debt to go to college.

However, you have more leverage than you think to improve an aid offer. Even families with a freshman or sophomore in high school can start the selection process now to increase their chances of garnering the best-possible aid package.

This time of year I turn to the sage advice found in Kalman Chany’s Paying for College Without Going Broke, published by Princeton Review and in its seventh edition. I interviewed Chany years ago and keep returning to his books as I scout for spot-on advice about college affordability.

What’s little known is that some colleges can be exceedingly generous, but they rarely advertise it. They can tap money socked away in their kitties — their endowments — to offer generous debt-free packages. The problem is, outside of the colleges known to be basking in billion-dollar-plus endowments, it’s tough to identify which schools are going to pony up.

One benchmark that Chany recommends is a college’s “endowment per student.” This is simply the endowment’s amount of money divided by the number of students. While this isn’t an iron-clad gauge of a school’s generosity, it’s a good place to start.

“Don’t necessarily be scared if a small school has a small endowment,” Chany advised, “take a closer look at what that means. Earlham College in Indiana has a small endowment relative to, say, Harvard, but it has a very high endowment per student.”

In financial aid negotiations, you’ll have more leverage with colleges having high endowments and a willingness to spend directly on students to replace loans with grants. That’s the keystone of your quest in the aid process.

Of course, it also helps tremendously if you have offers on the table from colleges that meet more than 90 percent of need. And there are no hard-and-fast rules on meeting need. Some no-name private schools will be very generous while huge state schools won’t part with a dime of their endowment.

For instance, Soka University of America, based in Orange County, California, has the highest ranking for endowment per student, according to collegeraptor.com. Here’s how Soka describes itself: “Proudly founded upon the Buddhist principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life, SUA offers a non-sectarian curriculum that is open to top students of all nationalities and beliefs.”

For families still sorting through initial college lists, keep a few things in mind:

  • Out-of-state schools will charge you that “nonresident” rate, which will bump up your total bill by tens of thousands of dollars. But that’s not always the case. You can often negotiate for the “in-state” rate if your child is an above-average student or has a talent the school is hoping to recruit (athlete, musician, etc.). Some schools will even make it easier for your child to qualify for the resident rate after the first year.
  • While schools with the highest endowments are usually well-known Ivies and other high-profile colleges, some great colleges fly under the national radar with excellent reputations and generous aid programs. thecollegesolution.com’s list of the most generous schools includes Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Dickinson, Grinnell and Kenyon — and dozens more.
  • Even if your family doesn’t qualify for a decent aid package based onfinancial need, students many qualify for a merit scholarship. Always ask for grants and scholarships based on merit because they’re not always publicized. Local, state and national merit scholarships are also available. Search for grants nationwide on fastweb.com.
  • Don’t like the aid offers on the table? Appeal in writing directly to the financial aid office. Ask for a “professional review,” noting any changes in family financial status. Has there been a recent change in employment? Is a parent getting laid off or paying for the care of an older relative? Any negative financial change should be noted.

Unfortunately, no single website will boost your chances for the best-possible aid package. You’ll have to corral your resources, including online search engines, and work with colleges.

But if you take your time and invest in some sweat equity, you can boost your aid significantly. When my daughter was weighing college offers, she was also applying for private local and state scholarships, many of which required just an essay. It was well worth her time because she netted thousands more in grants.

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