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When It Comes to Financial Aid, “Show me the money!”

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Parents and students are always looking for ways to pay the least amount of money for college. It’s even more important as costs keep rising and students face increasing student debt loads. The 2013 Project on Student Debt found that 69 percent of all students graduating from four-year public and private nonprofit colleges had student loan debt averaging $28,400.

But, how do you find colleges with the best financial aid? To begin, look at the data and compare. Then, search for colleges that offer free tuition. Finally, look at colleges that promise to meet 100 percent of a student’s financial need.

[Start talking about money NOW with these tips.]

Analyzing the data

COLLEGEdata.com offers a “financial friendliness” search option within its college match that helps you find schools offering generous financial aid packages. The search provides you with the following data: financial need met, student debt, and merit aid awarded.

Once you have a list of colleges, you can examine the individual college profiles and look at the individual percentages: need met, gift aid, self-help aid, debt, and awards. Compare your GPA and test scores with the most recent freshman class. If your scores are equal or higher, you have a better chance of receiving the most financial aid.

The colleges themselves also give clues to their financial friendliness. Search their websites for information regarding their outside scholarship policy (this means your aid is reduced by outside scholarships), the endowment level (colleges with large endowments tend to offer more aid), and their loan-limit policy (some colleges limit or eliminate student loans from their aid packages).

[For more advice and helpful hints on the college application process, check out the Guide to Preparing for College.]

Colleges that offer free tuition

There are colleges that offer free tuition? Believe it or not, yes. But there is always a catch. For instance, tuition is free at all of the nation’s military academies. Of course, students are required to serve in the military after graduation. The College of the Ozarks, a small college near Branson, Mo., calls itself HardWorkU. Students don’t pay tuition but work for an education and graduate without debt. The college provides full tuition and students are required to work on campus.

There are other schools, often small with specific degree offerings. U.S. News & World Report has a list.

Colleges that meet 100 percent of financial need

If a college promises to meet 100 percent of a student’s financial need, it will provide the financial assistance to make up the difference between your EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) and the cost of attending. Some colleges, however, will include student loans in the financial aid award which, in my opinion, should never be factored into a financial aid award. You still have to pay whatever the government determines your contribution should be based on your income, but the college makes up the difference.

Use tools like CollegeData.com and CollegeNavigator to search for these colleges. In addition, there’s an extensive list on The College Solution blog.

In the movie, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” the hero says, “some purchases you make with your heart and not your head.” That’s never good advice when you are looking for a college with the best financial aid. Use your head: Compare the data, discuss your options, and make a choice based on the famous words from “Jerry Maguire”: “Show me the money!”

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