Like many major purchases, the best tip for paying for college is simple but difficult: Start saving early -- like during infancy.
Contributing to a college savings plan early will lead to more money saved and more tax benefits. But even with such foresight, it still may only cover a third of the cost, requiring students to annually file a FAFSA form so they can try to get financial aid from their college.
The aid can come in the form of scholarships, grants and loans, and FAFSA -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- helps colleges determine how much aid to give students. But there are steps that students can take, after their FAFSA form is submitted, to help them get the best financial aid package they can.
WalletPop discussed this with Jay Murray, director of admissions at Post University in Waterbury, Conn.; it has 800 undergraduate students and a total enrollment of 4,000 when online students are added. Murray has worked as a financial aid officer at three different colleges during the past 15 years.Here are Murray's recommendations for getting the best financial aid package:
1. Get to know the Admissions Office
Developing a relationship with the office will help in case extenuating circumstances come up and you need someone you know to help quickly, Murray said. For example, aid may be lessened because of a high family income, but explaining that the extra money came from overtime work and was a one-time event could lower the income level, he said.
Entering freshmen have excellent opportunities to know admissions officers in person at recruitment events, Murray said.
"You want somebody at the institution to know you," he said. "This is a place where you're potentially going to spend the next four years."
2. Understand Aid Terms
Financial aid letters from colleges will itemize where the money is coming from, but not all of the terms are easily understood. Murray recommends asking if you don't know.
"It's very important when a family gets an offer to not take it as face value, but to ask questions," he said.
An aid letter will likely include the term "self-help," which is another way of saying that the student or family should take out a loan to help pay for college. They can choose not to take out a loan, but colleges often include it in financial aid offers, Murray said.
"Plus loan" is another common term in the aid letters. It means that a loan is taken out in the parents' name, not the student's, and that it must start being paid off immediately. It's like using a credit card to pay for college, although paid for by the parent.
Asking questions, as noted above, is important, and with that comes the chance to negotiate a better aid package if what you're offered isn't clear or you think you're being shortchanged. The more desirable a student is, the more likely a college is to work with them and offer enough aid so they can afford that college, Murray said. If a college has a need for drum majors, for example, the student might be able to work a better deal.
Bringing in a financial aid letter from another college will only work if the schools are similarly priced, he said.
4. Don't Pay for Assistance
Students should never pay to find financial aid or get assistance with FAFSA, Murray said. Instead of going to the correct website -- fafsa.gov -- people mistakently will go to fafsa.com, which charges $80 or more for information that is free elsewhere. "That's a significant racket," Murray said of the commercial site.
Students should also never pay for scholarship resources, said Murray, who recommends starting at the U.S. Department of Education site and then expanding to your state's education department site for more specific information.
For researching scholarships and how to pay for college, he suggests Fastweb, College Answer, Scholarship America, CollegeBoard, SallieMae and NAFSA, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
5. Separate Assets
A student doesn't want to look poor, but looking rich won't help get financial aid. Parents who add money to a student's savings account meant for college expenses can throw college aid off because it looks like the student has plenty of money, Murray said. It's best to keep the money in the parents' name so that it doesn't get as much weight toward a student's wealth.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
College Financial Aid: Admissions Director's Five Tips for Getting It