As Ashley Bunce finishes her final semester of nursing school at Trocaire College, she looks back on a long, challenging road of hard work.
Getting to this point has taken much skill, planning and dedication.
And that was just figuring out how to pay her tuition.
"It's a lot to take in," she said.
At first, Bunce's mom took care of everything. She made sure Bunce filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, had all the right forms and applications filled out, wrote whatever letters needed to be written.
But, deciding she needed to be more independent, Bunce took matters into her own hands.
"I figured I'd better learn how to do this myself," she said.
With help from her school's financial aid advisers, she skillfully cobbled together funding for college from student loans, government grants, scholarships and money from a part-time job. Eventually, she landed a work-study position at her school's financial aid office, earning money for tuition expenses and gaining valuable knowledge.
Nearing graduation, Bunce now feels like an expert on college funding. She just wishes she had gotten the hang of it sooner.
"It feels like by the time you finally know what you're doing, it's all over," she said.
Figuring out how to pay for college can be an overwhelming, confusing task. As Bunce's experience proves, there are several avenues of opportunity to help ease the burden. But navigating them can be tricky.
In a shifting economic climate with regulations changing and lenders tightening their fists, it's more important than ever to know the facts and have a strategy in place.
Arm yourself with these MoneySmart tips from college aid experts and get ahead of the game:
* Don't judge a school by its tuition costs. Research from Sallie Mae shows 46 percent of students and 40 percent of parents cross pricey schools off their lists before even applying to them.
"That's a really disturbing number. Nearly half of these people are limiting their options before they even know what financial aid package they'll get," said Gen Tanabe, a financial aid expert and founder of the Web site SuperCollege.com. "What matters is not the sticker price of the school, but what the student's out-of-pocket cost ends up being."
In other words, don't decide during the fall application season whether or where to go, wait until the spring when aid award letters come rolling in.
Sure, private universities might be more expensive than state colleges. But schools with a bigger price tag know they have to compete with the more attractive affordable options. They are often willing to level the playing field with aid to retain quality students.
* Try to take advanced placement classes while in high school and earn credit without paying tuition.
* Don't search for payment options alone, make it the biggest class project you've ever done. Get friends together after school to track down sources of aid, such as merit and need-based scholarships and grants, and apply for them together.
"You're creating more competition because you're all applying to the same ones, but you're dramatically increasing your pool of options," Tanabe said. "It will pay off in the long run, because you'll find far more [opportunities] than you would have alone."
* If it's right for you, consider attending a less expensive two-year college then transferring to a four-year institution. Most schools (including Niagara County and Erie Community Colleges and Trocaire College) have transfer articulation agreements for a smooth transition.
* It's never too late to start saving. Obviously, the earlier you start the better, but just because a student is already a junior or senior in high school doesn't mean saving is a lost cause.
"When you're looking at a $30,000 to $40,000 price tag, saving $5 here and $10 there doesn't seem realistic," Tanabe said. "But, every dollar you save now is money you don't have to borrow later -- and pay back with interest."
* Don't assume you're too rich for aid. Colleges award hundreds of millions in merit scholarships (so keep working hard senior year) and at some schools, families earning well into six figures can get need-based scholarships, particularly if they have multiple children in college.
* Don't ignore federal options. Unless your family earns under $50,000, you are unlikely to get any federal Pell Grant funding. But filling out the federal financial aid application (FAFSA) may still be worthwhile. Anyone, regardless of income, can get federal Stafford loans (up to $5,500 for freshmen, more in some cases), which are usually better than borrowing from a bank.
* Link your credit cards to a UPromise account and ask friends and family to do the same. When you shop at one of the tens of thousands of participating restaurants and stores, a percentage of the sale price will go directly into a tax-free education savings account.
The object is not to spend money dining out every night so you can get a fraction back in college funding. But, if you need to pick up groceries, book a flight or pick up ink cartridges for the printer, why not direct your spending to participating vendors and get a little something back?
* The Internet is an incredible tool, but don't limit your research there. There is no single clearinghouse off or online that will list every option available.
To supplement Web research, look to local community groups, fraternal organizations and corporations for locally focused scholarships and grants.
Planning on medical school? Call your local medical associations and societies. Want to be a pharmacist? Call the drugstore. Is your mom or dad a veteran? Head over to the American Legion post. If these organizations don't offer money, they can probably direct you to a few specialized organizations that do.
Some good, old-fashioned detective work will give you an edge on the millions of information age students relying solely on the Web.
* Continue to save in 529 plans. About two-thirds of 529 plan assets tracked by the College Savings Foundation are in portfolios that automatically become more conservative as college age approaches. If you're in one, either your investments were pretty conservative, or you have time to recover.
If not, you may have a lot less money for college than you expected. Don't expect your troubles will produce a suddenly bigger aid award. But keep this in mind: For most families, 529 savings have little or no effect on the contribution they are expected to make in the first place.
* Negotiate. You don't want to come off as a mercenary, and paying for school isn't the same as haggling over the price of a used car.
But, if one school is offering tons of aid and the school you would prefer isn't matching up financially, it is perfectly reasonable to ask for a "reassessment."
Tactfully explain your situation to an award officer and ask them to take a closer look at your application to see if there's anything they missed. The worst they can do is say, "No."
If your financial situation changes once your paperwork has been submitted, it is important to let the financial aid office know. Things like a parent losing a job or the appearance of sudden medical expenses are legitimate reasons to recalculate an aid package.
>On the Net
Find out how much you will need for college, come up with a savings plan and calculate how much that loan will cost you:
Find practical help during every stage of the game:
Even if you don't think you'll be eligible for government aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid: www.fafsa.ed.gov
>Financial aid glossary
Here are some helpful terms to know:
PLUSLoan: Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students. A loan taken out in a parent's name to pay for a son or daughter's tuition costs.
529 College Savings Plan: A state-sponsored, taxfree, parent-controlled investment portfolio. These took a hit recently with the market meltdown, but experts say they will rebound.
Need-Based Funding: Determined by the applicant's financial situation.
Merit-Based Funding: Awarded according to an applicant's talent or skill, regardless of their financial need. Examples are scholarships awarded to athletically, academically or creatively gifted students.
Grant: A financial aid award not required to be paid back.
Stafford Loan: A federal education loan funded or guaranteed and insured by the federal government.
Subsidized Loan: A needbased loan with interest paid by the federal government.
Unsubsidized Loan: A loan not based on need. Interest is paid by the student.