You Got Into College! Now, Let's Figure Out How to Pay For It

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Congratulations! Your high school senior just got accepted into college. Yours, and quite a few others -- a large fraction of colleges announce their acceptances around early April. Now, you can brag to all the relatives, and quietly enjoy a profound sense of relief. No more nagging the kid to write those essays. But your work isn't over quite yet.

You have just reached the next round in determining the survival of the fittest form-fillers, what I call "Darwinnowing": financial aid forms and scholarship applications. More essays, more research, and more ink for the printer, and a whole new test of your mettle as a competitive applicant.

The Name of the Game

The object of this exercise is to have your offspring graduate with as little debt as possible. The average U.S. undergrad walked across the stage to pick up his diploma carrying $29,000 in student loan debt last year, according to The Project on Student Loan Debt. So maximizing grants and scholarships is key.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%You may have already received a financial aid award letter from your child's institution of choice, assuming you filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Regardless of your income level, most financial aid offices require the FAFSA as a first step to financial aid. If you haven't filed this application, please do it now.

Treat the financial aid award letter as a jumping-off point. Contact the nice people at the school's financial aid office and ask if are there any other state, local, or federal scholarship programs your child qualifies for. Is this amount listed in the letter the maximum possible for your student? Are there any merit-based scholarships? Even after four years of helping my daughter apply, there are always new programs cropping up. If you are the parent of a rising college freshman, ask his or her high school guidance counselor.

Most colleges have a decent handle on what's available, but some outside sources are valuable for find less-known scholarships. Your local newspaper may occasionally mention smaller scholarships from area businesses and fraternal organizations. If you can access its archives online, it could be worth searching them. Your employer may offer scholarships for children of employees; a quick trip to HR should suffice to find out. My local grocery store chain has a scholarship competition for teenagers that work over the summer. Keep your eyes peeled everywhere.

Thinking Outside the Box

There are many free to use websites that are a treasure trove of merit and need-based scholarships. And those awards aren't all targeted to the star athlete/straight A/perfect SAT students. Consider Ball State's "C student" scholarship, endowed by alum David Letterman, or the scholarships that will be awarded to students who wore outfits made out of duct tape to the prom. Students who are the first in their family to attend college, children of active-duty military personnel, and even children of cancer survivors can find numerous programs looking to help them pay for college. Whatever your child's religion, ethnic background, hobby, interest, social affiliation, there is tuition money out there targeted at them.

Some websites try to compile the opportunities for you. Typical of these is Fill out a profile and it matches the student to hundreds of scholarships. You will get emails of new scholarships (internships, too) year round for which a student qualifies. The best part, many are no essay scholarships and some are legit sweepstakes offering college money from major companies. Full disclosure, my daughter won a scholarship through them a few years ago. is quite similar. Between those two alone, an average student should get notice of several hundred relevant scholarships per month. Here is a list of several more helpful sites. Interestingly, 60 percent of families, use scholarship search websites.

These should lead you to thousands of scholarships. Once you have found a couple dozen scholarships that are the equivalent of "reach," "a good shot" and "safety," pace yourself and start nagging your kid again for more essays and more recommendations. Try to stay organized and consider deadlines written in stone.

Finally, if there's a specific reason you just can't make the numbers work with what a college has awarded you may want to write them. Submitting a Letter of Special Circumstances detailing a job loss or extraordinary medical bills, for example, can't hurt.

College CashCaveats

If you do win outside scholarship money, you must notify the college financial aid office, and be aware: It may actually lower the amount of financial aid available. You should ask the college financial aid office if anything scholarship would change its aid package before accepting an outside award. But ideally, outside aid will simply offset the amount of debt your child will be taking on.

It is a daunting process, but graduating with less debt makes it worth all the hassle.

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