Maximize your financial aid
College applications may be out the door, but your work isn't done. Financial aid season starts Jan. 1.
(Money Magazine) -- Follow these steps to make sure you collect all that you deserve.
Be the early bird
Get cracking. Is it 2007 already? Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) - which determines your child's eligibility for federal aid and is used by colleges to determine his aid package - as soon as you can after Jan. 1. Go to fafsa.ed.gov to get forms and info.
Roll with it. Schools with rolling admissions policies also distribute aid throughout the year. The best packages go to the earliest applicants; be sure you're at the top of the pile.
Don't rule anything out. Even if you're sure you won't be eligible for need-based aid, know that many schools also use the FAFSA for merit scholarships, so if you haven't filled out the form, you may jeopardize your kid's chance at getting any merit aid.
Work on your profile
It's not just the FAFSA. Some private and state-supported universities use an application called Profile, which determines eligibility for nongovernmental aid. Profile costs $18 to file with each school; download it at profileonline.collegeboard.com.
It's not just about you. While the FAFSA tracks one year of income data, Profile tracks three years and takes into account whether your family owns a home as well as the wealth of stepparents and divorced, noncustodial parents.
It's not always bad. Profile can result in a higher EFC (expected family contribution) than the FAFSA , but not always, since it considers such things as regional variations in the cost of living, notes Mark Kantrowitz, author of College Gold: The Step-by-Step Guide to Paying for College.
Know all the angles
Go to school. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators holds free seminars nationwide offering professional help with the FAFSA. Find a seminar near you at collegegoalsundayusa.org. Websites such as FinAid.org have calculators that enable you to get a ballpark figure of your expected family contribution without providing identifying information.
Watch for phony Web sites. The official government site where you can get free information and application materials is fafsa.ed.gov. A for-profit, commercial site with a similar Web address, fafsa.com, charges $80 to help complete the application. But why pay when there's good, free assistance available? FAFSA's help number is 800-4-FED-AID (800-433-3243).
Take a shot. Remember that there is no absolute cutoff figure for financial aid eligibility, so you've got nothing to lose by throwing your hat in the ring. Michael Fraher, director of financial aid at Vassar College, notes that roughly 50% of students are getting need-based aid at Vassar, where the median family income for those receiving aid is a little more than $80,000.
"Given federal and state tax liabilities, the number of people in a household and the number of kids in college at the same time," he points out, "it's not unusual to have over $100,000 in income and still get financial aid at schools like ours."