Students who want to reap the maximum benefits of financial aid would do well to adopt the patience of Job and the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes.
Patience comes in handy because application forms are lengthy and require detailed information about parental and student income. Detective skills are necessary to ferret out often obscure or little-known grants that range from scholarships offered by the Kiwanis Club to those of parental employers and the local chapter of the Italian-American club.
In general, needy students can still find help with tuition and room and board, according to financial aid officers at colleges and universities.
But they add that financial aid is more likely today to come in the form of low-interest government loans than outright grants.
As recently as 10 years ago, many needy students could receive about half their aid in outright grants, said Lawrence Burt, director of financial aid for UCLA. Today, that figure is more like 20% to 25%, with the balance provided in loans and programs that offer jobs on campus.
And students should think twice before deciding not to pay the money back: The Bush Administration recently announced a new plan to crack down on students who do not repay loans.
There are many variables that go into establishing financial need, including the number of other children the parents are putting through college and the income, taxes and liabilities of the parents and applicants.
Sometimes, even students with reasonably well-off parents may be able to qualify for financial aid if they can prove they are estranged from their families, says Barbara Cheng, assistant director of financial aid for Cal State San Francisco.
"We encourage students to apply for financial aid unless they inform us that they come from a very high-income family," Cheng says.
Pat Coye, director of financial aid at Pomona College, where 55% of the students receive help, says those who think they might qualify should explore the idea.
What kind of financial aid is available and how do you apply?
The first step is to fill out a Student Aid Application for California (SAAC).
There are two versions, one printed by the College Scholarship Service and another by the American College Testing Program, which evaluate the students' financial need and provide results to federal or state agencies which offer loans and grants. Students must indicate which agencies should receive the information.
In most agencies, aid is based on the need of each student and his or her grade-point average. If two students have equal financial needs, the aid often goes to the student with the higher grades, financial aid officials said.
A copy of the application form is also sent to every college listed by the applicant and is used by those institutions to evaluate financial need in relation to that of other applicants.
Additionally, colleges and universities often offer special scholarships and grants. Civic and social groups also offer scholarships to students with particular backgrounds or qualifications. And some colleges and universities offer scholarships specifically for minority students, although the federal Department of Education is currently reassessing that policy.
Once students have been accepted, some schools attempt to draw up an aid program that meets all their needs.
"We try very hard to make sure that anyone who is accepted into Stanford will get the financial aid they need," said Ellen Williams, associate director of financial aid for the university, where annual tuition will climb to $15,102 for the 1991-92 school year. At Stanford, 61% of students receive some form of financial aid.