NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
It's that time of year again when colleges and universities start sending out admission acceptance letters and financial aid awards. And if you're like most American families you'll probably need some help with the hefty college tuition bill.
In fact, according to the College Board, at 4-year public institutions, tuition, fees, room and board will cost an average $10,636 a year, up 9.8 percent from a year ago. If your child is planning on attending a private institution, it will cost you even more -- try an average of $26,854 a year. That's up nearly 6 percent from a year ago.
So what are some options to control what will come out of your pocket? Here are today's five tips:
1. First step: Financial aid.
There is no need to be intimidated about the prospect of applying for financial aid. In fact, there's good news. According to the College Board, in the 2002/2003 period there was more financial aid available than ever before -- over $105 billion. And the number is expected to only go higher.
So, the first step to getting federal and state aid for college is filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Log onto fafsa.ed.gov for an application or call 1-800-4-FED-AID. Among the information you'll need to have available: the W-2 form for you and the student applying and the balances in your checking and savings accounts.
Once this is completed and sent in you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR should arrive anywhere from two to four weeks after the FAFSA is submitted. Look for the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) figure printed on the front page of the SAR report in the upper right. If the SAR has not been received four weeks after submitting the FAFSA, call. If there are any errors, make the corrections and send them back immediately.
CNNfn's Gerri Willis shares five tips on getting financial aid.
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As far as who decides how much a family is able to contribute, this figure is determined by whoever is awarding the aid. This includes the federal government or individual colleges and universities. Since financial aid is limited, they use formulas based on need that compare your family's financial circumstances with others.
Ideally, your child should request college applications and financial aid information the summer before his or her senior year of high school. However, it is never too late to try. Each college has its own filing date deadlines as does each state. On fafsa.ed.gov you'll find deadlines for federal and state aid.
Also, check out the financial aid calendar on Collegeboard.com to help you stay ahead of the deadlines.
2. Get the lowdown on loans.
Student loans make up the largest part of financial aid, making up 54 percent of the total financial aid awarded each year. There are essentially two types of loans, those based on financial need and those not based on financial need.
Among the different student loans out there is the Stafford loan. More than 90 percent of all student loans are Stafford loans. A "subsidized" Stafford loan means the government pays the interest that accrues on the loan while your child is in school and during the six-month grace period after graduation, resulting in substantial savings. The current interest rate is at an all-time low of 2.82 percent.
Another need-based loan is the Perkins loan. Funding is made available to colleges and universities from the government and the schools administer the aid to the students.
An "unsubsidized" Stafford loan is a non-need based loan. This means the borrower is obligated for the interest from the date the loan was dispersed. In other words, the interest accrues on top of the principal.
Among other non-need based loans is the PLUS loan. This is sponsored by the federal government and is geared towards parents. Parents can borrow up to the total cost of education. These loans currently have a very competitive interest rate, around 4.2 percent. Many people are unaware of the PLUS loan and have instead been tapping their home equity. Log onto collegeboard.com for more detail.
3. Go for the free money.
By free money we mean taking advantage of the scores of scholarships available. And help is actually no further away than your home PC or laptop.
The key is to use your imagination. Business organizations, service groups, clubs and more offer scholarships of $1,000 to $5,000. So think about your interests and affiliations. Many are not needs based; some simply require that you write an essay to compete for the money.
Do you spend your weekends helping the local park service? The World Wildlife Federation offers scholarships. Has your dad been a Rotary Club member all his adult life? That service group offers them as well. Don't forget that companies like Microsoft and Intel give away money to students too.
To find the best options, use search terms such as "online application" plus another phrase that describes any area where you might distinguish yourself, such as "athletic scholarship." One more trick when searching online, to avoid a bunch of commercial sites put the phrase "-.com" or minus.com into your search. Zero in on current info by including dates and even locations in your search.
It also can't hurt to apply multiple times. The more scholarships you apply to, the better.
4. Tapping college savings.
You've been saving for years for this special day and now might be the time to tap those reserves.
First and foremost, retirement savings should always be the very last thing you tap. Think about it. You can't borrow for retirement, but your child can borrow for his/her education and has a much longer period of time to pay it back.
Among the college savings plans or funds most people have are 529s, Coverdells, savings bonds, and investments owned by the child. Think before dipping into any assets owned by the child first since these could hurt your chances of getting a financial aid package. Financial aid programs penalize students' assets more than parents' when it comes to the proportions that must go to education. That simple fact may drive families to hold college savings in parents' names rather than their children's.
529 plans and Coverdell accounts are the next option. Simply request a withdrawal from your program administrator. This typically only takes a few days to process and you have a choice of how to receive the money. You can receive it yourself, have them make a check out to the student/child or ask them to write a check directly to the college. Make sure not to take it out all at once. Just withdraw enough to cover one year. Taking more than the annual education expenses is one of the common mistakes people make.
An investment in a 529 College Plan and Coverdell grows tax free and withdrawals are free of taxes when used for educational expenses. Therefore, make sure to keep your receipts. If you are audited, you will need them.
5. Go for the top.
The College Board says students should not rule out a school simply because it costs more to go there.
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Let say the family's EFC, Expected Family Contribution is $5,000. That means they are expected to pay $5,000 towards the education. At a college with a total cost of $8,000, the student would be eligible for up to $3,000 in financial aid. On the other hand, at a college which costs $25,000, the student would be eligible for up to $20,000 in aid. The bottom line: the family would be asked to contribute the same amount at both schools.
Another thing to consider. The Census Bureau says people with a bachelor's degree earn over 60 percent more on average than those with only a high school diploma. In other words, investing in college now could very well pay off in the long-term.
Gerri Willis is the personal finance editor for CNN Business News. Willis also is co-host of CNNfn's The FlipSide, weekdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (ET). E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.