Your college-bound kids may be looking forward to the upcoming summer break from high school classes. And before you know it, you'll be attending their commencement ceremonies. But while your children are still sophomores, juniors and seniors, they have extra homework to do. Make sure they complete these assignments to maximize their college financial aid eligibility.
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Finalize your schedule. Your children should increase their chances of getting free college cash by keeping their grades high and taking a rigorous curriculum, advises Lisa Bleich, president of College Bound Mentor, an education consulting firm in Westfield, N.J.
"Students who do well in school and are at the top of their class tend to get good financial aid packages," she says.
The more academically competitive the student is, the better his or her chances of landing merit aid. Before graduation, Bleich advises underclassmen to double check their schedules to make sure they're taking challenging courses.
Have "the talk." If you haven't talked to your children about what you can financially contribute to their education, now's the time. They need to know what's expected of them. Students who understand their family's college budget early have longer to find scholarships and research aid-generous schools than students who wait.
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"By sophomore year, it's time to start getting realistic about (financial) expectations," says Tommy Blair, director of financial aid at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. "Students should know what they can afford before applying to schools."
Check in with guidance. Before summer hits, Sean View, director of financial aid for Westminster College in Salt Lake City, recommends that sophomores discuss future college plans and scholarship opportunities for high school underclassmen with their guidance counselor or adviser.
"(Scholarship) opportunities really start in the junior and senior years," View says. "Students should get a feel for what's available while they're sophomores so they're ready."
View also recommends that sophomores reach out to community groups for information on local awards.
Shift your assets. When calculating financial aid packages, colleges expect dependent students to fork over a larger percentage of their assets than their parents. The Department of Education reports that for every dollar in an account in a parent's name, the government subtracts up to 6 cents from the student's financial aid package. For every dollar in an account in the student's name -- other than 529 plans -- the government subtracts 20 cents.
To maximize their package, students should spend down their own funds the year before applying for financial aid, says Linda Jacobs, director of College Placement Services, a higher-education consulting firm based in Seattle.
"If, for example, the student needs a computer for college, buy it in advance so that the student is showing less money," she says.
Pick your schools. The easiest way to score hefty aid is by applying to schools most likely to hand it over. While you're finalizing your list of potential schools, research each school's net price, average merit aid package, and average GPA, SAT and ACT scores for entering freshmen.
"If my (academic) profile is above the desired profile of the institution, I should expect an above-average merit-based award," says Blair.
Students can find net price information at the Department of Education's College Navigator site, and information on merit-based aid packages at collegeboard.org.
Nail your APs. By passing Advanced Placement exams administered in early May, underclassmen can knock a class or even a full semester off their college tenure before they even apply. According to the College Board, an $87 fee applies for each exam, but considering that the average three-credit college course at a public college costs $761, it's a worthwhile investment.
Take those SAT IIs. If your colleges require SAT II subject tests, Jacobs recommends taking them in May along with your AP exams.
"That's when students have the highest level of knowledge on that subject," Jacobs says, and subsequently, a better shot of performing well.
In addition to sweetening your application package, high SAT II test scores can increase merit award eligibility.
Check transferability. Students taking community college courses over the summer will be rewarded with a reduced tuition tag, says Blair -- provided that the credits transfer. Before hopping into a summer program, call the school you'll attend the following academic year to ensure you'll get credit for your hard work.
Fill out the FAFSA. If you haven't filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid yet, do it now. According to the American Council on Education, approximately 1.5 million students miss out on government scholarships each year because they don't fill out a FAFSA. Before leaving high school, complete the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov and contact the school you'll attend to see if you're eligible for school-sponsored aid.
Follow up. If you've been offered a financial aid award, View recommends that students follow up with the school to find out what's required to maintain it.
"Students need to ask if they'll need a certain GPA to maintain their scholarship and if the scholarship can be renewed," says View. "Students should also ask about the possibility of attaining additional funding next year."
While some colleges direct most financial aid to entering freshmen, View says that many institutions offer hefty aid for current enrollees performing well.