The Ins-and-Outs of Financial Aid

It's that time of year again. No, not tax time, it's financial aid time for graduating high school seniors.

Choosing among the complicated packages of loans, grants and student employment isn't easy but for many families it's the deciding factor in where to send their children to college.

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Here are a few tips from Stephen H. Joyce, director of student aid, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME:

Make sure you know the total cost of attending a particular college. Tuition, fees, room and board are typically easy to find but colleges often neglect to mention the cost of books, travel and personal expenses, which should be factored into your budget. Books alone can cost $900 a year, says Joyce. Size up how much grant money you're being offered. "Everything else you're going to have to work for or pay back at some stage," says Joyce. "If you want to determine generosity, it's cost minus grant offers."

Find out how your financial aid will change over the four years at a college. Many schools shift their aid packages from grants to loans as a student gets older. That is partly because federal law increases the Stafford loan maximum from $2,625 for freshmen to $5,500 for seniors, but colleges also know that a senior nearing graduation can't afford to drop out of school because the school reduced the amount of grant money.

Figure out how much debt you'll be carrying at graduation. Ask how indebted the average senior is at the student aid office. The answer will likely be more than four times your first-year loans. If you don't get a straight answer, consider asking seniors yourself about loan increases.

Ask questions and double-check the financial information you submitted. If you have special circumstances — a major medical expense, loss of income — make sure the college knows that, says Joyce.

Plead your case with the admissions officer if you really want in, but can't make the finances work. "We know where families can save money," Joyce says of his colleagues. If you have a better aid offer from somewhere else, don't be afraid to use that as leverage. Colleges are competitive and some admit to matching offers, but don't bluff — most will ask for a copy of the other offer.

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