Coping with the cost of college
5 Tips: Research your choices and don't overlook free money when looking at college costs.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - College costs are going to hurt more. The government is cutting support for college loans. And in six months, interest rates on the cheapest money students and parents can borrow is going to rise.
In today's top 5 Tips we're going to tell you how you can be prepared to face the tuition bill.
1. Get a thumbnail sketch
Average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges have ballooned 40 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars to $5,491, and the cost at private colleges has climbed 18 percent to $21,235, in the past five years, according to the College Board.
Before you start panicking, get a grip on just how bad the money situation is. Check to see just how much you will be expected to pay yourself. Many families are relying on savings and various loans to pay for college.
2. Get in your FAFSA
The sooner you get in your application for financial aid loan, known as the FAFSA -- (or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) -- the better your chances of getting a bigger reward. Most schools have their own deadlines, usually near mid-March, for making first decisions about handling the first batches of requests they receive.
Eight million students annually miss out on low-cost loans and other aid simply because they do not apply for it. Don't make that mistake. And don't worry if you don't have all the information in your FAFSA, says College Planner Brian Greenberg. You can always go back and change it.
3. Rethink 529s
College education savings plan, or 529s were supposed to make saving for college easier. Instead, these vehicles have caused more headaches. After the alarms went off about high fees, convoluted rules and shady broker dealings, new disclosure regulations may cause brokers to pull back or drop the plans rather than spend the extra time it would take to meet the requirements.
In 2004 almost 90 percent of parents were saving for college, but only 34 percent of them were using a 529 college savings plan, according to a survey conducted for Fidelity Investments.
But if you do think this is an option you'd like to explore, be sure to read the fine print. Sometimes fees can eat up the tax benefits, says Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.
There is a 529 bright spot with the impending deficit reduction act that will likely begin July 1st. Under the new law a child, even if he/she is an account owner, will not be as heavily penalized if they own a 529 plan. You may want to think about contributing to a Coverdell Education Savings Account instead; contributions are limited but it's a transparent transaction.
4. It's not just tuition!
While parents may be fretting about that big bill, little junior is busy spending a lot of little ones! In fact, those little bills can add up to $3,000 a year or $7,000 for nine months, according to some estimates.
College Board estimates that students attending four-year public schools spend more than $3,100 beyond tuition, room and board (including travel), plus an additional $894 for books. A college marketing firm, Student Monitor, says that $74 is per month for food outside the meal plan, $46 for entertainment, $48 for clothes, $41 for video games and school supplies, outside of books, cost $22. And don't forget at least $200 in extra spending on top of everything else.
So what's a parent to do? Grab those discounts where you can. See if the application fee can be waived if your child applies online. If you have more than one kid heading off to college, ask about sibling discounts. You can save on textbooks at eBay's half.com at www.half.ebay.com.
And finally, don't have your kids turn into super-seniors, spending more than four years in college. According to Greenberg, about one in two students don't graduate in four years.
5. Grab the free cash
You can be creative in your searches. If you plan on studying a foreign language, check out the The Kor Memorial Scholarship. It's awarded by the Klingon Language Institute (you don't have to know Klingon). You may even be able to get a scholarship just for being tall. Tall Clubs International awards scholarships of up to $1,000 for tall people. Women should be at least 5'10 and men can be 6'2.
If you like to skateboard, the Patrick Kerr Skateboard Scholarship awards money to skateboarders with grade point averages of 2.5 or above. For more information and to check out www.finaid.com.
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Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.