What Are Some Tips for Maximizing Financial Aid?

US News & World Report

By Unigo
May 4, 2011

If you’ve just received your financial aid package, congratulations! If the document looks like it is written in a foreign language with terms you’ve never heard of, you’re not alone. This week, the Unigo Expert Network addresses financial aid basics for a question from Mary S. in Boston, who asks:

Q: I just got my financial aid package and don’t know what to make of it. What are some terms I should know, things I should look for, or tips and tricks to maximize my aid?

A: Paying for college may be the most stressful part.
Steve Loflin, founder and CEO, National Society of Collegiate Scholars


It’s important for your family to determine what you can reasonably afford and make sure you are exploring colleges that fit within those financial parameters. Doing well academically (SAT, ACT, and in classes) and being active pre-college will go a very long way toward maximizing your financial aid package. If your package is not meeting family expectations, get creative by patching together dollars to make the financial ends meet. You can reach out to local community organizations, honor societies, and even search for quirky scholarships around a hobby or special interest. Also connect with current college students at the school you want to attend, because they usually have the best advice based on their experience and what they wish they would have known before they arrived.

A: Take control and be at an advantage.
James Montoya, vice president of higher education, The College Board

You’re not alone. The reason most students (and parents) find the financial aid process complex is because it is complex! But don’t let that stop you from investing the time in better understanding the process and the terminology you’ll find in financial aid awards. You have two great resources at hand. First, the College Board website has a free and easy to use online tool that allows you to compare financial aid awards and demystifies the challenging terminology. Second, there are the financial aid officers at the colleges you are considering, and you shouldn’t hesitate to call them with your questions. Take control of the financial aid process, and you’ll find yourself at a clear advantage for your entire college career.

A: Look at free money first; don’t be afraid to negotiate.
Katherine Cohen, founder and CEO, IvyWise

Look at free money first: scholarships, grants, and merit aid. Then, work-study: job placement on campus or in the local community. And finally, loans: money plus interest paid back over time. Once you’re admitted, a college wants you to attend. Have your parents call the financial aid office. Present the most comprehensive picture of your family’s financial situation, including any changes. Ask a first-choice school to match another offer. Students often receive more aid. Awards may not be consistent for four years; you’ll need to reapply annually. Choose a college that’s an academic, social, and financial fit for you.

A: Observe the total cost, not just line item amounts.
Stacey Kostell, director of admissions, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign

Be sure to compare the bottom line cost, not only the amount of scholarship money received. Know what expenses will be billed such as tuition, fees, room/board vs. personal expenses paid for out of pocket throughout the year. Depending on school location, personal expenses can vary greatly-and should include travel cost. Also, understand what is gift money (grants/scholarships) vs. loans, which you’ll have to repay. With scholarships, know if they’re renewable and what the requirements are to renew them. Finally, know that not all schools negotiate. Many publics do not, which means aid is not flexible unless income changes.