To Put This in Context:
Tuition costs can be the deciding factor in pursuing higher education, and the financial aid process can be difficult to navigate. But thorough preparation and savvy negotiation can enhance your financial aid strategy, helping to make a college education possible. Read on to learn how.
According to the College Board, the federal government awarded undergraduate students more than $126 billion in grants, loans, work-study funds, and tax benefits in 2015. And with two-thirds of full-time students paying for college with financial aid, it’s likely that you are looking to tap into this funding pool as well. 
Here are some tips to help you navigate the financial aid process and secure more assistance:
1. Knowledge pays off — literally. Do your research.
Before you apply for financial aid, it is important to research how the process works, including how colleges differ in the way they offer student loans. The most common student loan types are federal loans that are government-funded and private loans created by a lender, such as a bank, school, or state agency.
Federal student loans have fixed interest rates, and often you don’t have to begin repaying them until after graduation. Additionally, if you work in public service, you may qualify for loan forgiveness for your federal student loan. In contrast, private student loans have interest rates that can fluctuate over time, and repayment must begin immediately, but borrowers may be able to negotiate a higher amount of aid based on their credit rating.  Each college determines an applicant’s aid eligibility by calculating that student’s expected family contribution (EFC) — which can vary by thousands of dollars depending on the institution. 
Did you know?
Colleges and universities measure a student’s financial strength with the EFC. This process analyzes the student’s family to determine whether he or she meets federal aid eligibility and how much financial aid is needed. Institutions evaluate all taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits, such as unemployment and Social Security, to calculate EFC. Additionally, colleges and universities consider a prospective student’s family size and the number of active college students in the family. You can calculate your EFC at collegeboard.com or finaid.org.
2. Make a checklist of action items.
Navigating the financial aid process is a large undertaking, so it is important to be prepared for each step.
Some recommendations include:
- Set aside plenty of time to complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- Gather all documents, such as your Social Security and driver’s license numbers, W-2 forms, federal income tax return, and bank or investment statements.
- Calculate your EFC. Most students will only meet financial aid eligibility if their EFC is less than the cost of college attendance.
- Know — and meet — important deadlines.
- Speak with college financial aid counselors.
- Apply online for faster processing.
Did you know?
Financial aid advisors have the authority to make adjustments to a student’s aid package. 
3. Explore your options for a better deal.
Never limit yourself to one financial aid option. Universities and colleges want the best students to enroll, which is why you should list multiple institutions on your FAFSA form before you submit it.
Giving colleges an idea of the other schools you are interested in can result in more competitive offers.
Once you receive a financial aid package, don’t settle — you can appeal and ask for even more funds. Consider attaching your award letters from other schools to your appeals request and ask if your selected school can match them.  Playing one school against another can help you get the best deal for your education.
#Students: New @FAFSA forms arrive in early 2017. Plan to fill yours out ASAP. #HigherEd #Context
4. Have a goal and know your limits.
If you don’t know your financial boundaries, you can end up overcommitting. You need to understand how much you are willing to spend annually on your college education, which is why it is important to identify a walk-away point as well as a target price.  Know the specifics, such as:
- What you can pay out of pocket for tuition
- Your estimated cost of living while in school
- The types of aid you are willing to consider
- Your backup school options, such as attending a two-year college before completing your bachelor’s to keep your education affordable
Financial aid changes each year, and your eligibility will also change based on your academic performance and EFC. According to Forbes, some colleges front-load grants and scholarships for freshmen and then reduce the amount these students receive in subsequent years.  A prospective student should ask if financial aid will be consistent throughout the course of the program to guard against this practice.
Never quit looking for ways to secure funding.
Once you have submitted your FAFSA, negotiated with colleges about your aid options, and selected you school, you can still take creative steps to make college more affordable. Sign up for scholarship lists and apply to every award for which you qualify. See if your school of choice has a transfer policy and consider taking your electives at lower-priced colleges. Set up a personal budget that will keep costs low.
Whether you are a prospective or current student, it’s never too early — or too late — to consider financial aid. Paying for college is a major commitment, but by following these tips, you can ensure it stays within your reach.