Tool helps students sort through college aid muddle

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Traditional planning for college expenses usually exists of estimating tuition and how much to save each year to pay for four years. But once college gets closer, the numbers change and the options all have different prices, meaning exploring financial aid usually comes into the picture. And that's where college gets complicated.

"Often financial aid is presented in less than a clear way," said Carol Stack, co-author of "The Financial Aid Handbook." "It's not that complicated."

Ms. Stack and co-author Ruth Vedvik, both former college admissions directors, try to simplify the process. They believe that an informed student and parent can make college more affordable.

Get informed before taking out student loans
Student loans remain one of the best methods to cover the cost of a higher education. But as Congress looks for ways to trim the federal deficit, the student loan system could face serious reductions. Therefore, students and their families should not wait to look into student loans as a means to help finance an education.
The Internet offers a range of information about student loan programs. Here is a sampling of sites:

For example, the published tuition by each college doesn't mean that's the price the student may pay. Many offer "discounts" to attract students.

"Most scholarships are awarded by institutions, so we are showing students how, by developing a tool on how to find out what schools will give them the most money," said Ms. Vedvik.

Colleges look for the value a student would bring the school, so the more value the student brings, both academically and personally, the more of a discount the college could extend. That discount could be as much as 50 percent off tuition, Ms. Vedvik said.

To help match students with a school, the authors created the Merit Aid Profile, or MAP. The worksheet lays out a method for students to find colleges that may be more likely to award aid.

One part of the MAP that could help students reduce the cost for college is to find a match where the student could be in the top 25 percent academically of incoming students, they write. Students can determine how they rank by researching the SAT and ACT scores of accepted students. The book offers a sampling of smaller colleges and aid programs that, even if they are private colleges, could compare to the cost of public universities yet provide a more personal experience. (Play the bagpipes? College of Wooster may have an $8,000 scholarship waiting for you.)

The book provides timelines, tips and worksheets on putting together a search, filing applications and shopping according to cost to prevent getting in too much debt.

Once a plan is in place, the book guides students and parents through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which must be filed to determine how much aid the student could receive.

"We're really suggesting a paradigm shift in the college search," said Ms. Vedvik. "You can control that by doing a college search that is cost-aware. It's so important for many students graduating that they are not burdened with debt. And so really take control from the beginning, matching resources with talents and what institutions are willing to pay you for it."

Dan Serra:


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