Consider Plan B: If the net cost of college is out of reach, students have multiple options. They can attend relatively inexpensive community colleges to get undergraduate requirements out of the way before going to costlier four-year universities; they can search for private scholarships and awards through a free service such as Fastweb.com; or they can choose a college based on which institution is willing to give them the most aid. Generally, a student is more likely to get a generous package at a school where he or she is among the top students based on grades and SAT scores, Chany said. In other words, if aid is pivotal, apply to "reach" schools but also apply to plenty of institutions that consider you a highly desirable student who is likely to score in the top of the class. Those schools are the ones most likely to provide extra scholarships and grants.
One year before college
Study aid rules: Filling out financial aid forms can be tricky, and it's not uncommon for parents to make careless errors — like reporting exempt assets or noting the same assets twice on the form. Either mistake can cost you dearly, but no one will tap you on the shoulder to tell you that you've done it wrong. Go to the library or bookstore and read through one or more of the copious volumes on how to fill out the forms. Consider attending financial aid seminars. Also consider pulling up the current-year form and directions. Studying the directions in advance can help you in January when you're completing the new year's form because many of the tricky elements are the same. What's tricky? Most people assume that when you're asked for your "net worth" that would include all assets. In this case, it excludes what are likely to be your biggest assets — home equity and retirement plans. That's in the directions, so make sure you study them. Also, cash held in checking and savings accounts is listed separately on the form. If you add it into "net worth," that cash is likely to be double counted.
Financial aid forms for the 2013-14 year will not be available until January 2013, but reading through the directions for the 2012-13 form can alert you to areas where you might otherwise err.
Collect tax records: Fill out financial aid forms before the "priority aid" deadlines at all of the colleges on your student's target list. These aid deadlines can be as early as February. Both the FAFSA and Profile aid forms ask for tax numbers from the previous year (for example, 2012 for 2013 aid applications), even though you may not need to fill out your tax return until later in the year. You can estimate your tax numbers, but the school will verify these figures against your completed tax return before solidifying the aid award. The best strategy is to collect tax records and file early.
Investigate: Once you've been presented with a financial aid package, make sure you understand the terms. Aid award letters are not consistent and are sometimes confusing. Moreover, some scholarships are one-time only; others are guaranteed for all four years, assuming the student meets basic grade requirements. If these scholarships are pivotal in your being able to afford the chosen school, make sure you have the promise of consistency in writing before your child makes a college choice.
Already in college
Appeal: If you're in college but find that you simply can't afford school because your economic circumstances have changed, ask the financial aid office how you can appeal your award. In many instances, schools have an additional stash of aid that can be tapped by needy students — particularly by continuing students — who are suddenly so strapped for cash that they may not be able to continue their studies without it.
Keep applying for scholarships: Because there is money available for continuing college students, now is not the time to give up on scholarship applications. Check out the alumni association at your school as well as interest groups. Some don't specify that you need to be a high school student to apply. Every little bit helps.