Colleges use both formulas and feelings when awarding aid. Here's how to stack the odds in your favor.
Here's something that may surprise you: Four years at Harvard could actually cost the same as four years at a state school. That's because financial aid often makes up the difference between the sticker price and what you have to pay. If, for example, your "expected family contribution" is only $5,000, you might qualify for $25,000 in annual aid for a school that costs $30,000 each year. But if the school's annual costs are only $8,000 a year, you're likely to qualify for just $3,000 in aid.
When it comes to college financial aid, people have plenty of misconceptions. The cardinal rule for parents: assume nothing. Just because the family next door or your colleague's kid received aid doesn't mean you will -- or won't. Financial aid is based on a combination of factors, and differs from school to school, even child to child.
Despite the climbing costs of a college education, the outlook for parents seeking aid is pretty bright. A record $90 billion in financial aid was available in the 2002-2003 school year, according to the College Board, a non-profit organization that tracks college trends.
After adjusting for inflation, that's an 11.5 percent increase over the prior year. In all, more than 75 percent of private college students and 60 percent of public college students got some type of aid this past school year.
"While there have been tremendous increases in the cost of private education, there is a tremendous amount of aid available as well," says Alan Posich, an independent education consultant.
The trick is figuring out what aid you're eligible for -- then getting it.
NEXT: Who gets aid? >>