And although it might feel humbling to have to ask for help, financial aid officers say they are increasingly receptive to individual appeals. If a college simply isn't providing enough in grants and scholarships to allow the student to attend, it pays to write a letter asking for a "professional judgment review" and an increase in aid. College aid officials say students who request extra help (and can document their need for it) are far more likely to get aid these days. This spring, the Department of Education sent a letter to all colleges urging aid officials to be more flexible and give more aid to students from families affected by the recession.
Pat Watkins, director of financial aid at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., says she's able to give out more money to parents who write and document the loss of a job or a pay cut. Also persuasive are expenses that aren't accounted for by the FAFSA, such as medical bills or support of other family members. "Don't be ashamed," Watkins says; there's plenty of company these days. Don't delay, either, she adds—some of the scholarship money is handed out first come, first served.
Work harder. The heightening competition for free college money is requiring students to work harder and longer to gather the money they need.
Millions of students, for example, hope to supplement governmental aid programs with free money from charities and foundations. But the reality is that there's only enough private scholarship money to help out about 7 percent of all college students. And the competition for that fraction has gotten fierce, say scholarship judges. Applications to the Florida-based George Snow Scholarship Fund were up 24 percent this year, says Tim Snow, who runs the program. So judges had no choice but to use extremely tough criteria in winnowing out applicants, penalizing misspellings, anything less than a perfect rating from interviewers, failure to dress appropriately for meetings, and even being less than polite to the secretaries in the office. "I could have had another $100,000 and given it away to top-notch people," Snow says.
Students used to be able to line up funding for their freshman year and expect automatic renewals. Now they are finding that the scholarship search continues throughout their college career. After Googling for scholarships and filling out essays for much of her high school senior year, Shenise McKnight of Sacramento, Calif., found herself spending much of her free time as a freshman at Howard University doing the same thing. Looking back, she wishes she had worked even harder and cast her own college and scholarship nets even wider—"I'm beating myself up," she said, for missing the cutoff of a Howard scholarship for freshman year by just 10 SAT points. Now she's pinning her hopes on a financial aid review that might win her the scholarship for her sophomore year. The way to pay for college, she has discovered, is to "prepare ahead of time and open your eyes" to the broadest possible college and financial opportunities.
Searching for a college? Get our America's Best Colleges 2010 complete rankings.