Financial Aid Nuts and Bolts

This week I’m going to focus on some financial aid nuts and bolts.

I want to address one of the questions that puzzle families the most:  Will a college award my child any money?

Most parents have no clue how to answer this question. In fact, they usually don’t find out if a college is willing to kick in some cash until the acceptance letter arrives. And sometimes the financial aid verdict takes even longer.

As far as I’m concerned, waiting that long is unacceptable. By the time you receive the financial aid or merit aid awards, your child often has only a few weeks to decide what college to attend.

If the list of schools that your child applies to stiffs your family financially, you have no recourse. Your high school senior can’t start over and apply to other schools – it’s too late. And that’s when the tears typically start. Students who are excited about attending a college that will cost the family $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000+ a year, can guilt parents into giving their reluctant approval.

Playing Detective

So how do you avoid this sort of financial disaster?

You need to do your research long before your child applies to any schools.

In fact,  I don’t think teenagers have any business applying to colleges without having a decent idea about whether these schools will reward them with financial assistance. And that goes for low-income and middle-income and affluent students. In fact, unless you want to pay full price for college and, in some cases, that will cost a quarter of a million dollars, you need to do your homework long before your child begins filling out college applications.

Stay Tuned

I’m going to devote two or three blog posts this week that will focus on how you can financially evaluate schools. In my next post, I’ll explain how you can use the College Board’s website to conduct some of this financial detective work.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of a workBook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. She also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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