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3 tips to score more financial aid

financial aid sign

Incoming freshmen, beware of the front-loaded financial aid package. To entice new students to enroll, some schools offer freshmen substantial "merit aid" — awards that are based on qualifications other than financial need — then sneakily reduce those scholarships and grants in subsequent years, leaving upperclassmen with bigger college bills. There isn't data to explain how widespread front-loading is, but it's pervasive enough to make the average bottom-line cost of college for first-year freshmen nationwide about $1,400 lower than the cost for returning students, according to a 2011 report by higher education policy analyst Mark Kantrowitz. If you have already stepped into a front-loaded trap and watched your financial aid drop, there are ways to fill in the fiscal gap. Here are three strategies to increase your aid as an upperclassman:

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1. Seek specialized scholarships

One advantage upperclassmen have over incoming freshmen is experience. Many institutions have upperclassmen-only awards that are available exclusively to students in certain majors who have completed a requisite number of credits.

"Go to a department head [in your major] to see if there are any special scholarships …," suggests Paul Gilroy, founder and CEO of ProEducation Solutions, a private financial aid consulting firm headquartered in Sarasota, Florida. After that, hit up your school's financial aid office for information on other awards for students with your academic and extracurricular profile.

You can also find awards for college sophomores, juniors and seniors through private scholarship providers. Professional associations as well as organizations such as the Morris K. Udall Foundation and The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity offer awards that are only available to upperclassmen. FastWeb also has a list of upperclassmen awards on its website to get you started. And don't overlook local resources, says Rhonda Risser, director of financial aid for Scripps College in Claremont, California.

"Local service groups as the Elks, Rotary and Kiwanis offer scholarships, [and] businesses and banks often have college scholarships, too," she says. "Students should check with their parents' employers as well. Places of worship also often offer scholarships."

2. Get a job

Even if your school doesn't offer upperclassmen awards, they may provide lucrative work positions for seasoned students. As an added bonus, these campus jobs can potentially be resume-builders, too.

"There may be opportunities to be teaching assistants in classes — research assistants," says Kathy Ruby, senior manager of college finance for College Coach, a college admissions and financial aid advising firm. "These are the kinds of jobs that enhance your resume and enhance your learning experience but also give you a financial break. It might be that you get paid for doing those things, or you might get some kind of a partial tuition waiver."

Resident adviser positions — many of which come with the perk of free housing — are also usually reserved for older enrollees, as are student management positions, which may come with either a steady paycheck or a reduction in meal or tuition expenses.

There are also summer opportunities. Schools like Indiana University and the University of Nebraska offer paid summer research gigs for undergraduate upperclassmen, as do many private, nonprofit and governmental organizations, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Upperclassmen can also score a summer stipend if they're willing to do an internship. Boston College, Oberlin College, Tufts University and many others offer stipends for current students who complete unpaid internships throughout the summer.

3. Reduce your costs

Freshmen are often required to live on campus, but sophomores and above frequently have far greater control over their living expenses.

"Obtain off-campus housing, and share with other people so you can cut down on the cost of the rent," Paul Gilroy says. "That could be cheaper than a dormitory."

While the average public college student pays nearly $9,500 per year to live on campus, according to the College Board — that's about $600 above the average cost of tuition — those who opt for off-campus digs, several roommates and many nights of home-cooked meals could save a bundle. Just shop carefully. On-campus room and board prices generally include a furnished living space, utilities, meals, Internet access and sometimes cable television, not to mention the reduced transportation cost of being within walking distance of your classes.

Many houses and apartments located off campus separate these expenses out, making it difficult to compare apples to apples. (Hint: Online financial calculators can help.) A double drawback to renting off-campus is that apartment leases generally last for a full year, meaning that you'll be responsible for paying rent even if you're not there over the summer. But sticking around your college town through the sweaty months could be a good thing, Kathy Ruby adds.

"Check the summer tuition rates at your institution because some colleges charge a reduced tuition rate …," she says. "If you're trying to get through in three and a half years, sometimes taking classes during the summer can be an economical way to do it."

For more financial aid tips, check out these Schools.com articles:

Sources:

Unpaid Internship Stipends, Boston College,
http://www.bc.edu/content/bc/offices/careers/jobs/internships/stipends.html

"Trends in College Pricing," Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector, 2013-14, The College Board,
https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-published-undergraduate-charges-sector-2013-14

Prize in Ethics Essay Contest, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity,
http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/entercontest.aspx

Dr. Paul Gilroy, Ph.D., Founder, President and CEO of ProEducation Solutions, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 7, 2014

Student Research Opportunities, Indiana University School of Medicine,
http://medicine.iu.edu/research/student-research-opportunities/

Mark Kantrowitz, "Flaws in the Statutory Definition of Net Price," Oct. 11, 2011,
http://www.finaid.org/educators/20111011netpricedefinition.pdf

Research Experiences for Undergraduates, National Science Foundation,
http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5517&org=NSF

Summer Internships & Jobs: Stipend, Oberlin College & Conservatory,
http://www.oberlin.edu/career/students/summer_stipend.html

Rhonda Risser, Scripps College Director of Financial Aid, Statement sent through Rose Maria Santana, Scripps College Associate Director for Media and Public Relations, Aug. 7, 2014

Kathy Ruby, Senior Manager of College Finance for College Coach, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 5, 2014

Tufts Career Center Summer Internship Grants 2014 Guidelines, Tufts University,
http://careers.tufts.edu/students/internships/GrantApplication2014.pdf

Udall Scholarship, Morgan K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation,
http://www.udall.gov/OurPrograms/MKUScholarship/MKUScholarship.aspx

M.D./Ph.D. Summer Undergraduate Research Program, College of Medicine, University of Nebraska Medical Center,
http://www.unmc.edu/com/surp.htm

Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Research, Office of Intramural Training & Education, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
https://www.training.nih.gov/programs/sip/