The final exam: tips from advisors to help you pay for college

The acceptance letter is now in the hands of elated students and now families are turning their attention to how they will pay for it. But financial aid can be a confusing business, with the value of aid often differing from school to school.

To help students and parents make sense of financial aid, we turned to two experts:

Mark Kantrowitz is the publisher and vice president of Cappex.com, which helps students evaluate their chances of college acceptance and financial aid awards.

Todd Weaver, a former financial aid counselor at Northeastern University, is vice president of business development at Boston-based Strategies for College, a firm that helps families and students through the college application process, including how to improve their chances of getting financial aid.

Here they share their best advice for maximizing college financial aid:

Get a handle on the true cost

“Some schools will list the cost of attendance, but they may be just the direct cost—tuition, fees, room and board—not the other costs,” says Kantrowitz. “You need to review all the costs of attendance: tuition, fees, books, housing, equipment, transportation, computer, miscellaneous personal expenses. These may not be published by the school, but you need them for your own financial planning.”

Make sure you’re covered for four years

“The problem is that colleges don’t award the same amount of aid every year. If the student had unmet financial need, the college might meet 65% of it the freshman year, but only 60% in subsequent years,” says Weaver. “Also, students can borrow a little more each year, and so some schools reduce their grants by that amount. So ask the school if they’ll lock in tuition for four years. Some might laugh at you, but some try to do a good job of making college costs as predictable as possible.”

Is it really financial aid?

“Many financial aid award letters blur the distinction between grants and loans. They might list them all together in random order. Or they may abbreviate them to something like Fed Staff L, and you’re supposed to be aware that L means loans,” says Kantrowitz.

“The school might argue that [loans] are money that help you attend the school, but it’s still a loan,” says Weaver. “Focus on the money you don’t have to pay back: grants, scholarships and gift aid.”

Be strategic about 529s

“You want to have the 529 owned by the parent or student,” says Kantrowitz. “If it’s owned by the grandparent, it will be seen as untaxed income to the student and that will reduce financial aid. But if it’s a student or parent asset, only 5.64% will count toward financial aid.”

Take advantage of tax credits

“If you qualify for the American Opportunity tax credit, then you want to maximize that tax credit,” explains Kantrowitz. “The tax credit is worth $4,000, so you want to carve out $4,000 of expenses that aren’t paid by the 529. And only tuition, fees and books are allowable expenses for the tax credit.”

Don’t take no for an answer

“Do your research,” says Weaver. “Find out the financial aid history of the school for a student with your profile. If the student has pretty high scores and grades, you have a good case for asking for additional aid.”

“If you had a job loss, a salary reduction, a death of a wage earner, anything that changed from the base year, bring it to the attention of the school with the proper documentation. They will consider the special circumstances, as long as you have the documentation.”

Financial aid can be a complicated process. But understanding all of the factors  involved can help you or your child get on sound financial footing for a lifetime.

The information above is provided as a courtesy. Lincoln Financial Group does not offer legal or tax advice. We encourage you to seek the advice of an attorney or accountant with any tax or legal issues.