Encourage community service. Schools aren't the only organizations that value teens who volunteer. "It looks good to many scholarship providers too," says Lauren Segal, CEO of Scholarship America. "And it can be the tipping point for winning." Keep in mind that colleges like to see a history of service -- not just a few stints started in junior year.
Go door to door. If they've exhausted paper and online searches, students can visit local organizations like the Rotary club, church groups and nearby businesses to ask about scholarships. You and your spouse should also check with your human resources departments: "I'm amazed at how many companies offer grants to the children of employees," Segal says.
Keep your teen's Facebook account appropriate. According to a new report, about one in four scholarship providers check their finalists' online profiles. "Companies want to find students who reflect well on them," says Kantrowitz. "They search for inappropriate behavior and offensive language, and even look at students' natural writing style to see whether their parents probably wrote the essay for them."Strategize Your Search
Target a range of colleges. Include a few options that won't leave your family or child with too much debt. "You don't want your teen to fall in love with a school he can't afford," says Stack, who points out that the number of students defaulting on their loans within two years after graduation is now 9.1%. (One reason: It's becoming harder for current graduates to find jobs.) But you don't necessarily have to rule out all private schools, which may have more money to offer than state ones, says Weingold. "Some colleges have generous aid-giving policies, so you never know what you'll get until you apply," he says. To estimate how much tuition and living expenses will come to -- and to get an idea of how much assistance your family may receive -- visit each college's website and look for the "net price calculator"; all U.S. schools are now required to post one.
Barter for a better financial aid package. You don't have to accept a college's first offer, says Weingold. Call the school's financial aid office and explain why your family still can't afford the expenses. If your teen has received a better package from another university, write an appeal letter, including the offer, to her first-choice school, which may match it.
Cap your borrowing. Ideally, your child's student debt shouldn't be higher than her yearly starting salary, says Stack. The average income for college graduates is about $42,000 and varies depending on career; visit naceweb.org to see a range of salaries. Another strategy: Keep debt below $31,000, which is the maximum you can borrow over a four-year-period through federal Stafford loans. Unlike private loans, government ones have fixed interest rates and more safety nets, plus they offer some income-based repayment plans and loan forgiveness.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.