4 Critical Steps That Save Thousands on College Costs

Graduate with money.
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The first thing parents need to know about getting kids off to college is that it’s not like it was when they went to school. It’s now far more complicated and expensive. Getting the best results academically and financially requires focus and planning.

“The big statement is that the process to apply for and pay for college is dramatically different from what it once was,” said Crystal Tate, founder and CEO of Crystal Clear College Planning. “One of the most important points is to not procrastinate. It’s important to start the process early, certainly by the end of the sophomore year of high school.”

Tate, who worked in wealth management before founding the college planning company, works with students and their parents to navigate essential application steps and the arcane process of funding a college education. The process includes choosing colleges the student should target, focusing SAT and ACT testing for the best possible outcome, and analyzing funding options for state and private schools.

Financial aid is an especially tricky area. Some private colleges that advertise very high tuition prices also offer very large aid packages to students; others may advertise lower costs but, because they offer little assistance, may end up being more expensive. When all the variables are compared, private schools can be less expensive than public universities. For a big segment of the population, this calculation is critical. As Yahoo finance explained it:

For middle-income families, the financial aid process is especially crucial. College costs have soared more than 1,000% in the last three decades, while middle class household income has remained frustratingly stagnant. And because the lion’s share of federal and institutional grant and scholarship aid typically go to low-income households, college can be much more expensive for middle-income families.

Consider these strategies to maximize your student’s potential for admission, financial assistance and a successful college career.

Select an array of colleges for application

It’s never too early for students and their parents to determine what career path and colleges the students would like to pursue. It’s also important for students to generate a list of institutions including some that are a stretch or “reach” for acceptance, some that are likely to accept the student and a few “safety” colleges. That allows the students to target advanced courses, boost or maintain high grade-point averages and otherwise work toward goals that will gain them acceptance at their preferred schools for their preferred majors.

It is also a way to generate a set of schools accepting the student and a variety of financial aid offers — generally better offers at schools where the student is in the upper echelon of applicants, and less help from colleges where the student is stretching to gain admission.

With this feedback, students and their parents can compare both the academic and financial offerings of schools on their list. In addition, if the student is in high demand, the financial offer made by one school can sometimes be leveraged to get more from another school.

Determine deadlines and build a timeline

To get the best application and funding results, the first step is to map out critical dates for each college to which a student intends to apply.

Students should lay out when they will request recommendations and complete the other elements they need for solid college applications. That’s important because many schools have different requirements and, of course, deadlines.

Timelines also give students a chance to beef up grades or experiences that schools may be looking for in applicants. For example, students who show records of participation in extracurricular activities, part-time work and community service have an edge. College admission officers generally consider such experiences a sign of maturity that will help the student excel.

Timelines should include time for the student to prep for the major entrance exams — SAT and ACT — and retake one or both if needed, as well as chart out other key application components such as college essays and recommendations.

Get help

Getting a handle on available college funding begins with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which determines whether a student is eligible for government assistance covering college costs.

The information you enter on the FAFSA is also used by colleges to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and how much need-based aid you would receive from a given school. This U.S. Department of Education site explains these terms in more detail and how they are calculated.

Also check out: “Strapped for College Costs? How to Get the Most From FAFSA.”

If you’re like many people, you may find the process daunting, which is why some families engage professional college planning and funding experts like Tate to help navigate it. Such services aren’t free, but they can alleviate a lot of stress and prevent expensive mistakes. One misstep Tate often sees is when parents incorrectly assume their children will not qualify for any financial aid only to discover that they could have secured funding.

Another: “Oftentimes parents don’t understand the urgency of certain filing deadlines,” said Tate. “By the time they apply, many of the funds may have been allocated … A lot of the [funding] is given on a first-come, first-served basis.” Tate and other experts also can provide and clarify valuable information about student loans.

Even if parents opt not to engage independent expert help, they should work closely with the high school guidance counselor to review deadlines, ask for timeline input and request extra resources and information.

Research student loans

Tate advises that, whenever possible, students should carry some student loans so they have a stake in their own educational excellence.

There are many different types of federal and private student loans available, and it’s important to understand how they differ. Many people are confused about the various loans and their different interest rates, repayment plans, forgiveness programs and absolute obligations. The right choice often varies depending on the student’s course of study and employment goals. For example, those with student loans funded by the government may qualify for lucrative forgiveness and repayment programs if the federal government employs them.

The prospect of post-college employment may seem a long way off when you’re just getting started on the college application process, but it will come around faster than you think.

“It’s never too early to start,” said Tate. “The more time you give to the process, the less stress that accompanies it.”

What was your experience gaining admission and funding for higher education for yourself or your child? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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