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|> About Money 101

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  What kind of aid is out there?
From grants to loans, you have a lot of options

Even if you follow a regular savings plan for college, you may still come up short. Rest assured, you won't be alone. In 2000, the federal government, states, individual schools and private lenders offered more than $67 billion to families needing to bridge the gap between their savings and college costs.

Several factors are considered for aid-eligibility, principal among them your income; your non-retirement savings; how many kids you have, and their income and assets.

There are several sources of financial aid for college. Grants and scholarships are the best because the money is usually tax-free and never has to be repaid. These include federal Pell Grants, primarily for low-income families, which offer a maximum of $3,750 annually, based on need. The federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which is administered by colleges, offers awards ranging from $100 to $4,000 a student per year. Most students who receive need-based grants also are expected to participate in the federal Work-Study program, whereby students work part-time jobs to meet the family's remaining financial need.

Finally, there are loans, which come in two basic varieties: need-based, which help families who can't afford college costs; and non-need-based, designed to fill a gap when the family doesn't have available cash, but may have illiquid assets. Loans represent 59 percent of all financial aid for college.

The two most common and attractive need-based loans are the Perkins and the Stafford, both federally funded.

The Perkins loan is made directly to students; parents need not co-sign this loan. Repayment begins only after students graduate, leave college or fall below half-time student status; and they have 10 years to repay the loan. With a Perkins, one pays a low interest rate (5 percent), and interest doesn't accrue until repayment begins. A school's financial aid office determines how much a student gets, but the cap on borrowing is $4,000 per year for a lifetime total up to $20,000.

Interest rates for Stafford loans are variable, but the lifetime cap is 8.25 percent. With the subsidized Stafford, interest does not accrue until six months after a student graduates, leaves or falls below half-time status. Students can borrow up to maximums that rise the longer a student remains in school, between $2,625 freshman year and $5,500 senior year.

Top strategies to maximize aid eligibility
1. Save money in the parent's name, not the child's name.
2. Spend down student assets and income first.
3. Pay off consumer debt, such as credit cards and car loans.
4. Maximize contributions to your retirement fund.
5. Accelerate necessary expenses, to reduce available cash.

Source: FinAid.org
The unsubsidized Stafford is a non-need-based loan for which most students who apply for aid are eligible. Interest accrues immediately, but payment may be postponed until after graduation. Students can borrow up to maximums that rise the longer a student remains in school, between $4,000 freshman year and $5,000 senior year above any subsidized Stafford loans they may receive.

Another common, non-need-based loan is the PLUS, or Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students. This loan is made to parents, not students. Parents can borrow up to the annual cost of attending college, minus any financial aid received. This loan is dependent on your credit rating, although the requirements are not as stringent as those for a mortgage. If you have a bad credit rating, such as that resulting from judgments or liens against you, you may still be eligible for a PLUS if you can find a co-signer willing to take responsibility to pay the loan if you can't. The drawback of PLUS loans is that repayment begins 60 days after you receive the money, although the repayment period can last 10 years. The interest rate is variable, tied to the short-term Treasury bill rate, with a maximum of 9 percent.

There are also private loan options such as bank lines of credit; home-equity loans; Signature Student loans, which are offered by Sallie Mae; and Excel loans, which are offered by Nellie Mae. Private loans such as these are less appealing than the unsubsidized Stafford, however, because the interest rate is usually at a premium to the prime rate, and repayment may start immediately, rather than being postponed until the student graduates.

Next: Take those tax credits and deductions


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