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Financial Doors Can Open for College Applicants that Plan Ahead

Financial Doors Can Open for College Applicants that Plan Ahead

John Harding, a high school senior, practices violin at home in Murrietta, Calif. He's seeking merit scholarships from several colleges, including music and other activities to emphasize his well-roundedness. (Robert Hanashiro)

G. Jeffrey MacDonald | USA Today

Ripple effects of a dour economy are making this college application season as nerve-wracking for some admissions officers as it is for applicants. But for savvy families, there may be new opportunities.

“A lot of schools are going to be concerned about meeting their requisite enrollment thresholds,” says Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. “They represent a second chance for some applicants who might not have gotten in a year ago but now have a very realistic chance — if they can swing the cash or borrow or somehow finance the package.”

Best Value College for 2009

Navigating this new landscape requires an updated road map, consultants say. Public colleges with modest price tags probably will become more selective, while lesser-known private colleges may admit more students. To score a great education at an affordable price, students need to do a little extra research, think creatively and be assertive.

“Don’t be put off by the scare news,” says Lora Block, an independent college planner in Bennington, Vt. “It’s still unpredictable out there. The main tactic should be to spread your chances and have a wide range of choices that all are good matches.”

Dozens of private colleges are adding incentives to attract students for fall 2009. Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, Mich., plans to offer 50% off tuition for 400 laid-off workers or their dependent children. Students accepted to the UCLA or UC-Santa Barbara may attend California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks for the same price (average annual savings: $16,000).

New initiatives, including tuition freezes at several schools, have expanded the realm of what consultants call “financial safety schools,” where a student is likely to get accepted and can afford it.

For many students, financial safeties consist of public universities or community colleges, where costs are subsidized and admission is sometimes guaranteed. But costs can climb if classes fill up and turned-away students are forced to delay degrees.

Apply early, experts say

To secure a spot and avert delays, applicants to public institutions should apply as early as possible and be early in accepting offers of admission and registering for classes, says Daniel Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “Even though a college might not have a formal policy (of capping enrollment), it simply might run out of physical capacity,” he says.

John Harding of Murrieta, Calif., applied to Princeton and Harvard, in part because both have beefed up financial aid for middle-class families. He also has applied to the University of Southern California, which awards a lot of merit scholarships, and he feels he’s a strong candidate to get one because he has good grades and plays the violin.

That strategy has merit, says Philadelphia educational planner Dodge Johnson: “You’re more likely to get money at schools where you will be a catch.”

Ben Greenslade of Portsmouth, N.H., hopes anxiety about filling seats at small private colleges might work in his favor. He’s applying to Goucher College in Baltimore in part because he likes its international relations program. Also: his mother believes the school, where women outnumber men, might woo her son with scholarship money.

Don’t assume you’ll always pay less in-state. A Vermont resident would pay 27% less in tuition at the University of Hawaii-Manoa ($8,304) than at the University of Vermont ($11,408).

Start locally to save money

Starting at community college is the plan for high school senior Valerie Kozdra of Groveland, Mass. She’s taking two online courses this spring at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass. She’ll finish her associate’s degree, then transfer to a state college. “All I have to do is keep my grades up and I’ll be automatically accepted,” she says. Tuition is cut by a third as a merit reward.

To reduce overall college costs, students should submit scholarship and financial aid applications in January to get an early shot at available money, consultants say. A common mistake: waiting until tax returns are completed, then being told resources are already gone. Tax return information can be updated later, Block says.

© 2008 YellowBrix, Inc.

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