With the cost of attending top private universities exceeding $30,000 a year, few parents today decide on a college for their child without considering financial aid. Luckily, your computer can be a potent weapon in this sometimes confusing hunt for college cash. The best source of information is the World Wide Web, which is crowded with sites offering everything from detailed explanations of how colleges determine your financial need to online education loan applications.
Start Web surfing at the excellent Financial Aid Information Page. This comprehensive site is a well-organized trove of information for both students and the parents who bankroll them. Especially useful is its rich collection of financial calculators, including programs to help estimate the amount parents are expected to pay for college under federal guidelines, various calculations on investments you may want to tap, and even projections on the cost of tuition at your kid's dream school four--or maybe five or six--years from now. Simply plug in your financial data, and the figures pop up on your screen. Keep a pencil or printer nearby, however, since you can't save personal information on the pages.
Another handy site is the Education Dept.'s college financing page. There is the usual glossary of financial aid terms and a comprehensive rundown on federal college grant programs, mainly for low- and moderate-income families, plus lots of detail on government guaranteed loans for all income levels. But the big draw here is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which almost all U.S. students applying for need-based aid must file to determine their expected family contributions. Consult illustrated online instructions for completing the FAFSA's sometimes confusing paper form. There's also FAFSA Express, downloadable software that lets you file your application via modem directly to the federal processing center--shaving two weeks off the wait mail filers will endure.
CUSTOM FIT. Of course, one way to ease the burden of tuition bills is through scholarships and grants. Thousands of them are out there, often reserved for students with very precise qualifications or majors. A great way to sift through the clutter is fastWEB, a database of 180,000 private scholarships, fellowships, grants, and loans. A student registers for fastWEB by completing a detailed online profile. In about 15 minutes the system sends the student's mailbox a list of scholarships, with additional alerts as new grants are added to the database. Be sure to consult fastWEB before paying for a private scholarship search service.
If yours is like most families, you'll be relying on loans to help with costs. A good place to check out borrowing options and repayment schemes is through student-loan powerhouse Sallie Mae's Web site (www.salliemae.com) or pages of a loan servicer such as USA Group (www.usa group.com). Enjoy the free advice. At today's tuition prices, you'll need all the savings you can get.