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by Judy Bates, Associate Editor

I. Overview Of Topic

Yipes!  It now costs around $30,000 a year on average to attend a private university,  and around $12,000-$15,000 to attend a public university.  Where's a middle-class family supposed to get all that money?  Answer: student aid. That's what this report is about. 

Surprisingly, there are many sources of student aid.  But you have to be savvy about how to go about applying for it these days. Many sources have dried up due to the credit crunch and recession. In fact, it's reported that 137 lenders have stopped funding federal student loans over the past year, and 33 have dropped private programs. Loans and scholarships are still available, but students face an extremely competitive environment nowadays. 

The First Steps 

In some families, the parents take on most of the work involved in applying for student aid; in others, the high school student does it all himself or herself.  In what follows, I'll address the high school student directly to make things easier, recognizing that most readers of this Guide will be parents, not students (however, please email this Guide on to your teen-ager!)

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As a college-bound student, one of the first things you should do -- preferably in your junior year -- is to speak to your guidance counselor about available student financial aid.  He/she can steer you to many scholarships, loans, and work study programs you'd never find  on your own.  Remember:  there are still thousands of student aid sources available, not just the few you may be aware of.  It's your guidance counselor's job to know about virtually all of them.

One thing your counselor will tell you to do right away is to complete the FAFSA form.  FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  This basic form will be used to determine your student aid requirements by nearly all schools and institutions which provide financial aid.  So you need to complete it carefully and accurately.

You can access the form online at Or you can get it by calling 1-800-FED-AID.

FAFSA is administered by the U.S. Department of Education.  You should file it early during the second semester of your senior year, as soon as your family has prepared their tax return (you'll need info from that return to use in the form).

It takes 1-2 moths to get your evaluation back, which will be called a Student Aid Report.  Based on the financial info you provide about yourself and your family, the US Department of Education will estimate how much money you can contribute from your own resources toward your college expenses.

So for example, if that figure is $8,000 and your expected total expenses at a college you plan to attend will be $13,000 for the freshman year, your "Financial Need" is $5,000.  Many colleges will, as part of their acceptance procedure, offer student aid packages that cover most or all of the Financial Need amount.

Also, some schools require the so-called PROFILE forms.  These are administered by the College Board and are used primarily by private colleges to estimate your eligibility for nongovernmental loans (such as loans provided by the college itself).  The PROFILE is somewhat similar to FAFSA but more detailed.  You can obtain and file the PROFILE at:

Be sure to check with your guidance counselor and/or the colleges where you're applying to find out if there are any other forms you need to fill out.


  • Scholarships, not loans, should be your primary student aid goal.  There are many, many specialized scholarships out there.  Maybe you're an inventor, or maybe you have a family member in the Armed Services, or maybe you speak an in-demand language for which the government or some other institution needs translators, like Hungarian or Korean.   You'll be amazed at how many specialized scholarships you find yourself qualified for.  Check with your guidance counselor and also visit, to research this subject.
  • Beware of fee-based scholarship search services on the Web.  Some of them are scams.  At a minimum, check with the Better Business Bureau and your guidance counselor before paying anyone a fee to search for scholarships for you. 
  • Many scholarships require you to write a "scholarship essay."  If so, say the experts, focus on answering the question posed by the essay.  The most common reason for rejection is that the student meanders and drifts off-topic in the essay.  Also:  be sure to proof-read before submitting!
  • As for student loans, there are two types:  those provided by the government and those which are merely guaranteed by the government.  The former usually carry a lower interest rate.
  • The most commonly-sought student aid loans today are the Stafford Loan and the Perkins Loan.  You can only borrow about $3000 for your freshman year under the Stafford Loan (higher amounts for later years), and you must demonstrate at least moderate financial need to qualify.  The Perkins Loan provides up to $4000 for the freshman year but requires a demonstration of exceptional financial need.  The Perkins is considered a very good loan for students because interest does not accrue while you're attending college.
  • If you are unable to put together enough student aid by means of scholarships and loans, your parents may be able to take out a PLUS loan (Parents Loan for Undergraduate Students) or borrow from a private lender, such as a bank or other financial institution.
  • Don't be afraid to apply for admission to the school you really want based on cost.  Availability of student aid varies considerably among colleges, and the one you want to attend may have a sizable scholarship endowment, in which case it might turn out to be much less expensive than you think.
  • When estimating student aid requirements, don't focus entirely on tuition and room and board.  You'll also need money for books, transportation, and personal expenses (entertainment, clothes, etc.)
  • If a college accepts you and offers you a student aid package which you feel is inadequate -- and if this is a school you've set your heart on attending -- write a letter and ask for more financial aid, say the experts.  Address the letter to the Director of the Financial Aid Office (get his/her name from the school switchboard).  In your letter, try to provide a good, specific reason why you need more aid, such as "Our family has had a medical emergency," or "My father has lost his job recently."  If you don't have a good reason you might try, "We have a large family and all my four sisters will be attending college soon."  That one probably won't work.  However, if you have  received a larger student aid offer from another college, you should definitely mention that fact, say the experts.  It's even a good idea to include the letter offering you the financial aid.  This may sound like hardball but often gets results, provided you're a student the college would really like to have.
  • Check out the college-ranking edition of U.S. News & World Report.  It includes average amount of student aid received by each college's students.  This should give you a pretty good idea if a given college is likely to provide the amount of aid you need.
  • Be careful you don't get hooked in by a college that offers a great student aid package for the freshman year, then cuts it back it succeeding years.  Some colleges do this in order to get top students or athletes to attend.  One way to check this out is to talk to current students at the college who are receiving aid.  Also check with your guidance counselor, who may be aware of colleges in your area that have a reputation for this type of tactic.
  • As indicate, recently several big private lenders have stopped providing private student aid due to the ongoing credit crunch in the U.S.-- e.g., Education Finance Partners, Wachovia (for undergraduates), and the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority, among others. If your expected loan source has discontinued private student loans, experts advise -- (1) Contact the college's Financial Aid Office for other sources of funding (2) Apply for federal student loans, especially Stafford loans (3) Apply for a Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (a PLUS loan).
  • To Do List:  Junior Year and Summer Before Senior Year -- Research Colleges and all sources of student financial aid; Senior Year, Fall -- Talk to guidance counselor; apply to selected colleges; apply for scholarships; Senior Year, January -- File the FAFSA; File the PROFILE; apply for more scholarships and grants; Senior Year, Early Spring -- Review accept/decline letters and student aid offers from colleges,  make your decision.
That's it - our ten minutes are up!  (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on student aid.

II. For Additional Research

This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources.

Lending Tree

Lending Tree is a great service if you're looking for student aid. It's free and fast, and pulls together an enormous amount of loan information that would take many hours for you to research on your own. And it makes possible a side-by-side comparison of the loan terms of a dozen or more major banks and financial companies. Finally, it greatly simplifies the application process. You begin by choosing "Federal Student Loans," "Private Student Loans," or Consolidation Loans," indicate the amount and time period needed, and then you'll receive information on loan availability nationwide detailing monthly payment, number of payments, total cost of loan, date of first payment, and APR. Go to Lending Tree and click on "Student Loan" on right side of page.


FastWeb is a must-see for parents of college-bound students. This site has a great deal of very good info on scholarship student aid around the U.S. You can search for local, national or college-specific scholarships. The site also has a database of student internships and part-time job listings nationwide. It's directed both at college and grad students. The site claims to be recommended by more than 18,000 high school guidance counselors and financial aid officers, and to be the most complete educational resource online. As one more bonus, it also includes a complete listing of U.S. colleges, profiles of each, and scholarships available at each. New users can conduct a free search. Quite an excellent resource.

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III. Discussion Group


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