Financial Aid Resource Center

As college costs rise, so does the opportunity and need to get funding through federal aid, grants, low interest loans and scholarships. The first step in doing your financial aid homework is understanding your expenses and financial aid rights.

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When evaluating college costs, the first numbers people usually turn to are tuition, room, and board. While the tuition figures listed in most financial aid guides are fairly accurate, the average room and board figures can sometimes be off. Also, there are many additional expenses you need to consider that aren't always discussed.

The Direct Costs of College

Direct costs are those expenses that generally are paid to the college and are specifically education-related.

College Tuition
Tuition is fairly simple to understand; it's the amount the college requires to attend class. At some colleges, there's a flat tuition amount regardless of how many credit hours are taken. At others, the amount depends on the number of credit hours.

The first thing you'll want to do when adding up the total cost is put down the exact tuition amount. If the school bases the amount on number of credit hours, assume 15 hours per term.

College Administrative Fees
There are some fees required of all students and some that may have to be paid simply because of the major your child chooses. For example, science majors may have to pay a refundable lab breakage deposit of $50 to $100 per lab course.

Assume that you'll get none of this amount refunded, since even the most careful student breaks a beaker occasionally. Some colleges may also have an optional student services fee,

depending upon whether you choose to participate in certain activities.

Books and Supplies
Here again, this figure will vary according to the major. For example, science books can be extraordinarily expensive ($75 or more for some), and there could be ten or more books required for one English literature course. In addition, there may be lab workbooks, photocopied articles, and study guides that don't always get figured in.

While the financial aid office usually provides an average annual amount, this figure is apt to be low. Estimate between $500 and $700 per year.

Room and Board Costs
This expense is dependent on whether you live in a dorm, off-campus apartment, group house, relative's home, etc. The dorm costs may also vary depending on whether the room is a single, double, triple, or quad bedroom. You won't know the actual amount until after you've been assigned a spot. For calculating purposes, use the average figure the college provides.

Unfortunately, many colleges lump room and board charges together, which can be misleading, but the cost of dorm rooms or rent usually can be calculated accurately. The range is typicallybetween $3,000 and $4,500 a year.

If you live on campus, you may have options as to meal plans. Some schools require that all meals be eaten in the school dining center. Others offer variable meal plans, where you sign up for any number of meals per week. What's best? You may not need three meals a day, seven days a week. So if you can, choose the plan that meets your needs. Remember, the school's estimated board cost will include only meal plans, not snacks, socializing, or splurges.

The Costs You Don't Think About

Transportation and Travel
This expense includes both the cost of commuting back and forth from the local residence to classes and the cost of getting to and from home during vacations and breaks. For a student living on campus, the transportation or commuting amount is probably zero, unless you have a car. If a car is involved, there are parking fees, insurance payments, and gas, oil, and maintenance costs.

The other transportation amount, referred to here as "travel," has to do with going between your home and the college. Every family will have a different amount, depending on whether the college is clear across the country or next door, whether you come home once, twice, or a dozen times, and whether the distance can be driven or not. We can't provide you with averages, but we will say that there are ways to make this figure lower, such as student discounts, public transportation, and ride-shares.

If you live on campus, you may have options as to meal plans. Some schools require that all meals be eaten in the school dining center. Others offer variable meal plans, where you sign up for any number of meals per week. What's best? You may not need three meals a day, seven days a week. So if you can, choose the plan that meets your needs. Remember, the school's estimated board cost will include only meal plans, not snacks, socializing, or splurges.

Personal Expenses
These expenses include incidental expenditures such as laundry and entertainment.

Health Coverage
You will probably be able to remain on your parents' health insurance plan while a student, even when living away from home. So, your family can assume health expenses will be similar to those of recent years. Don't discount a few extra expenses, though.

Although the cost of college can sometimes seem criminal, it's important to know that when it comes to student financial aid, you do have some rights. Know these rights and ensure that they are being honored by colleges, federal and state institutions, and financial institutions.

In the financial aid process, you have the right to...

  • Privacy: All record and data submitted with financial aid applications are treated as confidential information.
  • Accept or decline any offer of financial aid.
  • Be notified before cancellation of aid, as well as the reason for cancellation.

On applying for financial aid, you have the right to know...

  • the cost of attendance
  • the refund policy for withdraws
  • what financial assistance is available from federal, state, and institutional resources
  • the procedures and deadlines for financial aid submissions
  • how financial aid recipients are selected
  • how your eligibility is determined

Regarding any awards your receive, you have the right to know...

  • how and when funds will be disbursed
  • full details of each type of award you receive
  • the interest rate
  • the total amount you must pay
  • when your repayment begins
  • the cancellation and deferment provisions of your loan
  • the length of your repayment period

Regarding any Federal Work-Study job, you have the right to know...

  • a job description
  • the hours
  • the pay rate
  • how and when you'll be paid

On meeting the obligations of your award, you have the right to know...

  • the criteria used to determine satisfactory performance
  • how to appeal any decision

The financial aid process can seem opaque at best. Knowing your rights going into it will help ensure that you get all the help to which you're entitled.


It's Never Too Early
It's never too early to start investigating how you'll pay for college. There are many investment accounts where you can save money tax-free, basically starting from birth! Pre-paid tuition plans were created to be inflation-proof, so that's another way you can start saving early. Or, if you can't afford to put aside any money, just studying for and doing well on your PSATs, SATs, and other standardized tests can put you way ahead in the financial aid game.


Apply for Aid Before Being Accepted
Inquire about the required financial aid forms when requesting admissions applications, and start the financial aid process six to nine months before you plan to enter school. Create a checklist of when all applications and forms are due.


Complete the FAFSA
Pick up a copy of the Federal Application for Free Student Aid (FAFSA) form from your high school guidance office or any college admissions office. Complete and submit the FAFSA to the federal processor as soon as possible after January 1 of the year you will be attending school. An online version of the FAFSA, called the FAFSA on the Web, is available through the Department of Education.


Find Out If You Need the CSS PROFILE
If you are considering applying to a private college or university, find out if the school requires the PROFILE, a new customized application for institutional aid made available by The College Scholarship Service.


Investigate Scholarships and Grants
The best way to receive an outside scholarship is to research your options. Spend a day at the library or on the Internet and investigate free resources. But make sure to take a look at the site's privacy policy, and be aware that you might encounter outdated data.

If you are planning to use a paid search service instead, investigate it thoroughly first to make sure it's from a reputable company. Develop a powerful resume that emphasizes your strengths and abilities. Compile and submit necessary applications as soon as possible.


Review Your Student Aid Report (SAR)
Approximately three to four weeks after submitting the FAFSA, you will receive an acknowledgment letter from the federal processor called the Student Aid Report (SAR). Review the SAR to ensure all information is accurate. If necessary, submit corrections.


Determine Your Expected Family Contribution
The most important element of both the SAR and the CSS PROFILE acknowledgment letter will be the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is the out-of-pocket expense that you and/or your family are expected to contribute to your education. Financial aid offices use the EFC to determine your financial aid award.


Review Your Financial Aid Award Letters
Beginning in April, you should receive an award letter from the financial aid office of each college to which you have been accepted. The award letter states the type and amount of financial aid you will receive. Review your award letters to make sure they reflect accurate information.


Consider Negotiating for a Better Financial Aid Award
Your financial aid award will be a combination of grants, scholarships, work-study programs, state grants, and low-interest loans. If the package from a particular school is disappointing, it is possible at this time to contact the financial aid office and try to negotiate a better award, especially if you receive a better package from another school. Use this better financial aid award as a bargaining tool.


Apply for Loans
You and your family may decide to seek additional funds by applying for a federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS), a Federal Stafford Loan, or a privately insured supplemental loan.

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