A Financial Aid Crystal Ball

One of the problems with paying for college is that you don’t know how much it’s going to cost.

Many students won’t receive their financial aid awards until the spring. And colleges expect families to start paying a short time later.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could know well ahead of time whether a school is going to be generous to your child? If you had this information in advance, your child could skip applying to schools where the prospects for financial aid were slim to none and focus on the ones that are clearly willing to provide a discount.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem.

Financial Aid Crystal Ball

Many schools will give you a pre-read on what kind of financial aid package your child might receive based on the family’s finances and the teen’s academic profile.

In the past I have mentioned that Muhlenberg College will give prospective students a financial aid pre-read, but I didn’t know whether other colleges provided this valuable service.

I learned at a conference last week that apparently lots of colleges will provide a predictive financial aid package, according to Angel B. Perez, director of admission at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA.

If you want a financial aid heads up, timing is everything. Perez says that the financial aid staffs are too busy at certain times of the year to provide this information.

When should you approach a college’s financial aid office? Early fall and late spring are the best times to contact a school, Perez says. You might think that summer would be the best time to call a financial aid office, but it’s during those months that the staff is packaging the financial aid awards for the returning students.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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