college admissions

7 Ways to Maximize College Financial Aid

As if college applications weren't stressful enough, students readying for college face another nerve-wracking challenge: finding financial aid.

Paying for a college education can be daunting: A four-year public university can cost $19,000 a year on average, while the priciest private nonprofit schools can cost near $70,000, according to The College Board.

But even if students and their families are disappointed by paltry financial aid packages, there are still numerous sources of financial aid that can help students pay for an education.

And with more scholarships available from an assortment of sources, “families and students need to be proactive in looking for them,” said Rachelle Feldman, the assistant vice chancellor and director of financial aid and scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley.

Here are a few ways that prospective students and their families can get a slice of the financial aid that is available:

Fill Out the FAFSA, No Matter What

Most universities required applicants to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by early or mid-March, but the federal deadline isn't until June 30. That means applicants still have a chance to claim some federal grants, even if they don't think they qualify.

“Families who aren’t the poorest of the poor sometimes think, ‘Well, I shouldn’t even bother filling this out,’” she said. “The truth is, there’s a wider range of financial aid available — from institutions, from the state, from the federal government — for people at a variety of income levels.”

And while the FAFSA form can seem daunting, completing the form only takes about 20 to 30 minutes, said Feldman.

It's time well spent: Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, cited a recent analysis from financial site Nerdwallet that indicated high school seniors who graduated in 2013 missed out on $2.9 billion in federal grants simply because they didn’t complete the FAFSA.

Look Outside Universities, Too

A number of professional societies, corporations and foundations offer scholarships for students from particular backgrounds or who are planning on pursuing certain subjects in school. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), for example, last year awarded 230 scholarships collectively worth more than $700,000 to students pursuing engineering degrees, according to Karen Horting, the society's executive director and CEO.

“We know that for women and underrepresented minorities, financial barriers are a larger hurdle,” Horting said. “For us, it’s a natural fit with our mission to offer scholarships and help more women into the engineering field."

Students can rely on scholarship search engines to sort through the options based on subject, grades, location and applicant background. Available search tools include NerdScholar,'s scholarship database and the College Board's Scholarship Search. Some, like College Scholarships Foundation and Niche, even offer their own scholarships.

But be careful of services that charge for scholarship searches, Draeger said. The FAFSA is free, as are almost all scholarship applications.

Search In-State

Many states offer both need-based and merit-based financial aid, although those grants are often limited to in-state universities. Florida residents, for example, can apply for the non-need-based William L. Boyd, IV, Florida Resident Access Grant or one of three scholarships in the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program; both grants can only be used at Florida universities.

One notable exception is the DC Tuition Assistance Grant (DC TAG) program, which provides up to $10,000 to cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public four-year colleges across the U.S.

There’s Help for Undocumented Students

Some states and several private universities offer financial aid to undocumented U.S. residents. California Dream Act grants, for example, help fund in-state college tuition for students who meet eligibility requirements.

Get in Touch With the Financial Aid Office

Even though the financial aid process can seem daunting, applicants shouldn’t be afraid to ask for guidance. Some private universities even negotiate — within reason — on financial aid packages, Feldman said.

“You can always call the institution you’re applying to and ask for help,” Feldman said. “Financial aid officers are often happy to help prospective students with the application process, even if they’re not full-time students yet.”

Look Around the University

Not all financial aid is offered by the financial aid office. Departments outside the financial aid office may offer money in the form of prizes, honors scholarships or special stipends — especially for students in their sophomore, junior or senior years. Prospective students and current students need to be especially proactive in seeking out these sorts of opportunities, Feldman said.

Keep Applying

Even if students don’t receive scholarships as freshmen, they can keep applying for financial aid. And universities sometimes offer grants or stipends that may help defray the cost of tuition or special studies, like research projects or foreign travel.

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