Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Shopping for Colleges? The Best Colleges For Your Money and 5 Tips to Getting a Good Deal

Now is the time many parents of high school juniors will take their kids to look at colleges. My friends are on the hunt for the best school, with the best college town, and of course with the best academics. But take a look at what tuition runs and all those dreams of attending the fantasy college may be squelched. Bruce G. Hammond, a former managing editor of the Fiske Guide to Colleges and co-author of four additional volumes in the Fiske series, most recently Fiske Countdown to College: 41 To-Do Lists and a Plan for Every Year of High School, says: "Comparison shopping is the name of the game in today's college market. College costs continue to rise, but more aid than ever before is available to help soften the blow." Hammond recently released his picks for the best bang for your tuition buck.

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Top Financial Finds of 2010:
Cooper Union (NY) - One of the best deals anywhere if you want to study art, architecture or engineering and deal with Ivy-level competition for admission. Tuition is free, and students pay about $20,000 for room, board and fees.

Elon University (NC) - A rapidly rising star among small liberal arts colleges, Elon has a welcoming environment and supportive faculty. Big emphasis on global perspectives and hands-on learning.

University of Iowa (IA) - World-famous for its creative writing programs, Iowa is one of the most affordable of the Big Ten universities. Especially strong in the health sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and space physics. of Iowa

University of Mary Washington (VA) - A leading example of public liberal arts colleges that compete with privates at a public price. Offers just as much history and tradition as other prestigious Virginia institutions like UVA and William & Mary.

Olin College of Engineering (MA) - The new kid on the block among top engineering schools, Olin has more in common with teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges than grind-it-out engineering schools. Everyone gets a full tuition waiver and pays about $18,000 for living and other expenses.

SUNY - Binghamton University (NY) - The premier public university in the Northeast. With only 11,500 undergraduates, Binghamton draws top students with its strong academics, commitment to teaching and pioneering emphasis on global awareness.

Warren Wilson College (NC) - The best of the schools where students combine academics, community service and on-campus work. Set in the mountains of North Carolina, it has a strong international flavor.

5 Tips to Get a Great Deal:
1. Ignore Free Money Come-Ons. Various hucksters purport to offer an inside angle on "free money for college" or "unclaimed financial aid." Never pay for information that is available free. Ninety-five percent of money for college, including the vast majority of government aid, comes from the institution where the student attends.

2. Understand the Menu of Costs. College can cost $5,000 or $50,000 per year, depending on which type of school a student chooses. The options range from expensive private colleges to cheaper in-state public institutions and community colleges. The best way to control college costs is to include some affordable options on the student's short list.

3. Don't Fixate on Sticker Price. At expensive private colleges, only a small fraction of the students pay the full bill. Among colleges of all kinds, about one-third of the sticker price is covered by scholarships and financial aid. To maximize the chance of getting such discounts, students should apply to colleges where their academic credentials are above average.

4. Apply to Competing Institutions. Needy applicants to private colleges get leverage when they receive financial aid offers from competing colleges. If the offer from First Choice U. is less than one from a competitor, families can use the better offer to see if First Choice U. will match it.

5. Read the Fine Print. The total amount of a financial aid package is less important than the components of the package. Some consist mainly of grants, which are free money. Others are chock full of loans, which must be re-paid. Some packages have good loans, with interest paid by the government while the student is in school. Others have market rate loans with payments that begin immediately.

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