When it comes to paying for college, research is the key

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Learning how to pay for higher education is an education in itself.

It requires throwing away myths that only straight-A students get scholarships and money for needy students will suddenly appear.

It requires mastering a new vocabulary -- such as FAFSA, the ubiquitous financial aid application, and PHEAA, the state agency that offers financial aid, and a host of federal loan and grant programs from Pell to Perkins to Stafford.

And it requires much detective work to find out just where the money is.

"I was just amazed at how complicated the process was and how different the game is played at every school," said parent Connie Ruzich of Sewickley whose daughter, Emily, won a full scholarship to the University of Richmond.

Nationally, most college students receive some sort of financial aid.

Most institutions do not have enough financial aid -- federal and state grants and loans, work-study jobs and grants provided by the school's own money -- to go around to all of those who need or want it.

They ration it by merit, need or a combination of that and other factors.

Unless they have large endowments, such as Harvard University does, many schools cannot afford to meet all of the financial needs of the average student. Some meet less than 75 percent of the financial need of students who do receive awards based on need.

Students and their families often are left to fill the gap themselves by finding outside scholarships, digging deeper into their savings, taking out private loans, getting help from grandparents or choosing cheaper schools.

Many high school counselors long have recommended students apply to a "safety school" they are sure to get into. With rising college costs, students now are advised to be sure to include a financial safety school.

The bottom financial line is the net cost of attending -- not the sticker price. But that can be hard to determine before applying.

"A lot of times the scholarship strategies are confidential. The best way is to apply to a number of schools," said Paul-James Cukanna, executive director of admissions and enrollment research at Duquesne University.

The best financial aid, of course, is free money -- called grants, scholarships or gift aid.

Sometimes free money is part of a financial-aid package based on need, but many schools also award it based on merit -- such as academic achievement, a special talent or community service -- both for students with financial need and those without.

"If you want to get a merit award, you have to apply to a college where you're going to be high up in their admission pool," said Joanna Schultz, director of college counseling at The Ellis School.

Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst of the College Board and Skidmore College professor of economics, said, "If you go to the best school you can get into, you're much less likely to get a merit-based award."

Many students miss out simply because they don't meet the deadlines, said Patricia McCarthy, director of financial aid at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Schools with rolling admissions -- ones that act on applications as they come in rather than waiting until a set date -- often have rolling financial aid as well, and money can become scarce late in the cycle.

Deadlines for particular scholarships can be as early as the fall of the senior year of high school.

Some of the largest quantities of free money come directly from the schools themselves, through the admission application, special application or by invitation, audition or special exam.

Some schools rely on a formula that uses high school grades and SAT orACT college entrance exam scores to determine scholarships.

If the school bases an award on an SAT or ACT score, it can be worthwhile to take the test again even if the initial score was good enough for admission as long as the school accepts new scores up to its scholarship deadline.

Those who repeat the SAT on average improve their score by 30 points, and some by more than that. That can be enough to push a student into the next category and add thousands of dollars to a merit aid grant.

An improved academic record also can result in more money. Carlow University, for example, will consider improved grades if received by Feb. 15.

But even if the school doesn't publish a matrix of grades and scores, academic achievement can make a difference, both in non-need-based awards and sometimes in the allocation of grant money to cover need.

"There is a tiered process by which students who are higher performing academically are rewarded by having more merit-based money," said Thomas Ball, director of financial aid at St. Vincent College.

Some schools, including Carnegie Mellon University, practice "preferential packaging," giving more grants to meet the needs of students they want most.

Some schools award merit money before they know whether a student has financial need. If the student has need, the merit money is applied to help meet the need, which can mean more grants and fewer loans in the financial aid package.

For outside scholarships earned, financial aid offices often reduce loans before grants. Financial need is determined by either a federal method, which is required for federal money, or an institutional method.

Community colleges may have few academic scholarships, but lower prices. Community College of Allegheny County, which usually offers one merit scholarship a year, charges $2,400 for a full-time student carrying 30 credits a year.

State universities
Pennsylvania's public universities have lower tuitions and offer smaller merit-based awards than private schools.

An exception is the University of Pittsburgh on its Oakland campus where an estimated 234 freshmen men without need -- not counting athletic scholarships and tuition waivers -- received non-need-based grants averaging $12,115 in 2005-06. That amounted to 7 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen.

Penn State's University Park campus offered 738 -- 13 percent of its freshmen -- an average of $3,880 in scholarships to those without need.

Average non-need-based awards at regional campuses tend to be lower at both schools, dramatically so at the University of Pittsburgh.

In the State System of Higher Education, schools can provide board of governors' scholarships -- merit awards that cover tuition -- to up to 2 percent of their students as tuition waivers.

But they can't use any tuition or state money to fund scholarships, so it's up to the schools to raise scholarship money to meet need and reward merit.

Availability of such scholarships -- both to meet need and reward merit -- varies by campus, depending how much is raised.

California, Clarion Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities of Pennsylvania all have some non-need-based awards, but none of them meets an average of 100 percent of students' financial need.

The same is true of the state-related schools, Lincoln, Pitt, Penn State and Temple.

Private schools
For students with financial need and top academics, some of the best aid may be offered at expensive schools with sizable endowments.

The University of Pennsylvania and most other Ivy League schools don't give out any non-need awards. But unlike most schools across the country, they pledge to meet 100 percent of a student's financial need.

At the University of Pennsylvania where the total cost of attendance is $46,580 a year, Penn's Web site -- which shows that some families with incomes above $90,000 receive financial aid -- puts the impact of its financial aid program this way: "If you can afford a college that costs $19,000 you may just as easily afford Penn."

Penn provides aid packages with grants instead of loans for students from families with incomes below $50,000. Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford universities all have variations on that theme.

One doesn't need to be an Ivy League-caliber student to earn a merit award at many private colleges, however.

Tony Indovina, who retired this year as a guidance counselor at Shaler Area High School, said, "Certainly the private schools, the more expensive schools, are going to have a whole menu of merit scholarship money that they'll use as an incentive to draw deserving students, good students. A lot of them are pretty generous. You don't even have to be at the top of your class."

Some private colleges and universities list particularly high percentages of freshmen -- both with and without need -- being awarded non-need-based aid, not counting athletics and tuition waivers.

Based on the 2005-06 survey colleges complete for the major guidebooks, these are some of the schools that provide more than 80 percent of their students non-need-based aid, counting both students with and without financial need: Duquesne University, 81 percent; La Roche College, 89 percent, St. Vincent College, 92 percent, and Westminster College, 97 percent.

Some out-of-state schools with high figures are Case Western Reserve University, 84 percent, and University of Dayton, 95 percent.

Out-of-state schools
With few exceptions, tuition for out-of-state public colleges is higher than that at in-state public colleges.

One exception is the University of South Dakota, where tuition and fees for nonresidents total $6,679, lower than tuition at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University.

West Virginia University also comes closer than many with an out-of-state tuition of $13,840 a year, compared to $11,646 a year for freshmen and sophomores at the University Park campus of Penn State.

However, some schools, particularly in neighboring states, offer Pennsylvania students discounts if they have earned minimum SAT or ACT college entrance exam scores, high school grade point averages or both.

The list includes West Virginia University, Kent State, Ohio State, Ohio University, Miami University of Ohio and Indiana University in Bloomington. Out-of-state residents -- who often have greater need because of the higher tuition -- sometimes don't fare as well as in-state students do on need-based awards.

At the University of Michigan, out-of-state residents who have financial need are more likely to have a gap of $7,000 to $8,000 a year between what they need and the package they are offered, said Feodies Shipp, assistant director of undergraduate admissions.

Outside scholarships
To find outside scholarships, many students use scholarship Web sites as a starting point, but some local guidance counselors couldn't recall direct successes.

Of the popular FastWeb site, Nick Kinek, guidance counselor at Riverview High School, said, "Students do a lot of work and come up with not a lot of money. ... It's almost like winning the lottery with a lot of these scholarships.

"We stick with the local scholarships, the ones we know where students can get some money."

Julie Sitko, counselor at Vincentian Academy, said, "I really encourage the kids to do as many local scholarships as they can because they're not up against as many students. Our kids apply to those scholarships and they get them."

Bob Alcorn, guidance department chairman at Fox Chapel Area High School, said among the local winners are "average, everyday kids."

Local scholarships are often smaller than the ones offered by colleges and universities. But they still can make a dent in costs and can be cobbled together to fill more of the gap. And it could take a lot of hours working at minimum wage to make the same money.

To find an outside scholarship, look for family connections, such as a student's and parents' employers, unions, life insurance companies, clubs, churches, other religious organizations, veterans groups and community.

Consider also the student's special circumstances, such as academic achievement, community service, athletics, special talents, disabilities, ethnic and racial groups.

Many high school guidance counselors post on the Web or in their offices scholarships offered by local groups to their students only or those in a small area as well as some larger contests.

If a high school's site is short on ideas, the Web sites of nearby high schools may have some helpful information.

Some students never stop applying for scholarships as they look for money for their subsequent college years.

Anna M. Griswold, assistant vice president for undergraduate education and executive director of student aid for Penn State University, said students shouldn't assume the grants will come through.

She recommends saving as much as possible.

"To the degree families can save, they should. Those who haven't in the hopes there would be sufficient money to pay for college may be surprised," she said.

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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