Jonathan Johnson of Riverside, California, had his heart set on going to a top private college, but he knew his family couldn't afford the cost. So starting in his sophomore year of high school, Jonathan set his mind to one goal: getting college funding.
"I pursued financial aid with tenacity--I wasn't going to stop until I got just what I needed," says Johnson, who is now a junior at Chapman University in Orange, California.
He studied up on financial aid, and he spent a lot of time getting advice in his high school guidance office. "Our school had a guidance counselor who specifically sought out scholarships for all the graduating seniors."
Johnson applied for all the awards he could think of, including Target's $25,000 scholarship, an NAACP award, and a Ronald McDonald House Charities scholarship for $2,000.
He also focused on applying to private colleges that would offer him a generous financial aid package. Because he wanted to pursue a business degree, his top-choice school was Chapman, which has a strong business administrative program and is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the state.
Johnson's high school guidance counselor helped him get the best package from Chapman. The school recognized his academic talent and financial need, and gave him a package totaling nearly $40,000. The first member of his family to attend college full-time, Johnson also qualified for multiple outside scholarships, which totaled $33,725. To meet most of the remaining costs, he relied on an unsubsidized Stafford of $4,000.
"Jonathan came to Chapman with a package that met all his tuition, fees, and most of his residence expenses," says Greg Ball, director of financial aid at Chapman. His advice: "Always apply for financial aid and take advantage of all the programs your school has to offer." When he was still in high school, Johnson learned an important lesson about applying to college: A higher education almost always costs less than advertised, so don't discount any school you really want to attend.
"Many prospective students do not even apply to more expensive schools simply because of the sticker price," says Dan Lupin, director of financial aid at Embry-Riddie Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. "Students should apply to the school of their choice and then let the school help them determine if attendance is financially feasible."
Even if you don't get an aid package like Johnson did, salary and employment statistics prove that investing in a college education makes good financial sense. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that the unemployment rate for four-year degree holders is approximately half that of those who hold a high school diploma alone. And the average annual income for college grads is $22,000 more than that for high school grads.
The idea of earning about $1 million more over your lifetime should give you some comfort, but you still have to pay for your education now. If you want to minimize your college expenses, you'll need to be aggressive and organized, both in your hunt for financial aid and in your efforts to cut costs.
Start with the fundamentals.
Basically, there are two types of financial aid: merit-based and need-based.
Merit-based awards are typically scholarships given by a private institution, your college, or the government. These awards recognize your talents, whether they be academic, athletic, musical, literary, or in some other area.
Need-based aid is awarded according to your ability to pay for college. To figure out how much you should be able to pay, colleges look at your family's income, assets, and other financial data that you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and often on the College Board's PROFILE form. (For more information, check out www.fafsa.ed.gov and http://profileonline. …