Save on College by Picking the Right School

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College is expensive.

The average cost for tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year private institution was $32,307 last year, according to the College Board, up about 6% from the previous term. Each full-time student at those schools received $9,300 in grants and tax benefits, on average, making the net cost about $23,000.

State schools are less expensive -- $13,589 for in-state students and $24,044 for out-of-state students at four-year schools -- but still a hard pill to swallow for those scrimping and saving to make ends meet. The average grants and tax benefits for each student in those institutions was $3,600.

College costs have been rising at nearly twice the rate of inflation each year for some time, and are projected to keep accelerating. Low-income families get more government aid, while athletes and super-smart overachievers rely on their talents for financial incentives.

Of course, the middle-class family with a B-student and a strained budget gets the short end of the stick.

"I think most kids look at US News & World Report rankings and say, 'I want to go to these top schools,' no matter whether the school will give them money or not," says Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. "Kids have no clue how debilitating these student-loan debts can be.

O'Shaughnessy uses two examples of nearby schools to make a point about choosing the right college, based on financial circumstances and grade-point average.

Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University is stingy with merit scholarships, but good about providing aid to needy students. On the other hand, George Washington University, located right nearby, "loves affluent kids," O'Shaughnessy says, and offers an average merit package of $23,000 per year.

Columbia University and New York University -- which are on opposite ends of Manhattan -- offer a similar situation. While O'Shaughnessy says Columbia may provide 100% of a low-income family's needs, NYU would offer the same student about 68%, with a good portion in loans.

"You can have a smart kid and if they go to NYU, they're probably going to leave the school with a lot of debt," she says. "If they go across town to Columbia, they won't."

Students and their parents should consider these useful tips to lower the cost of tuition without tacking on enormous debt burdens:

1. Do your homework.

Figure out whether the school of interest meets the student's profile -- academically and financially.

Most schools release a "common data set," which provides useful information, including average merit award, total loans and grants and how many students receive need-based awards vs. merit-based. The College Board's Web site also has a "College QuickFinder" tool, which provides information on cost and financial aid, and lists similar schools based on other visitors' searches.

If a school simply doesn't meet your financial needs, don't be afraid to take your business elsewhere. While a different university may not be the top choice, "if you let your kid apply wherever they want, that could be a financial disaster," O'Shaughnessy says. 

2. Play the gender card.

Young men are in high demand overall, since 56% of the higher-education student body is comprised of women, a figure that is projected to grow. On the flip side, colleges that are focused on engineering, math or science tend to attract more of their male counterparts.

Be aware of gender statistics, because a school weighted against your sex might offer financial incentives to lift its "boy count" or "girl count." 

3. Venture outside state lines.

Colleges love diversity -- not just in heritage, but in home address as well.

Public schools have an especially large portion of students coming from within the state border, with Texas at 87%, California at 84% and Virginia at 80%, according to O'Shaughnessy.

The further away the school, the better the package is likely to be, she says. Her daughter ventured from their home in San Francisco all the way to Pennsylvania to get a better deal.

4. Don't discount the endowment.

While many assume their higher price tags are set in stone, private schools -- unlike public universities -- have endowments to tap into when drafting aid packages.

If a student has certain qualities the private school is seeking, its $40,000 tuition can fall far below that of the $20,000 state school, O'Shaughnessy says. This is especially useful for families in higher income brackets who would not qualify for aid offered by the government, other than loans.

Make sure to highlight qualities the school is looking for when negotiating with financial aid officers.

"Do you have something a school wants?" says O'Shaughnessy. "They're going to be more willing to throw you money to get you to come."

Don't let outside scholarships detract from other awards.

While every little bit counts, the average private scholarship is just $2,000 and may not last all four years.

Some schools also subtract outside awards from their own aid packages, making the scholarship essentially useless -- unless it is subtracted from interest-bearing loans.

Ask the school about its policy on outside awards. If there are no kinks, use the Web to find scholarships based on an array of factors, from merit and heritage, to essays and personal experience. The College Board site, along with Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com offer such tools. Guidance counselors can also flag the best awards for a particular student. 

Still, O'Shaughnessy says the time spent searching and applying could be better spent. "The effort should be in finding schools that could reward you financially for four years, which is significant, she says, "rather than $1,000 here or $2,000 there for a year and that's it."

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