College financial aid advice for middle-class families

A young female graduate in black cap and gown.

Student loans for middle-income students are available for those willing to put in the legwork. (Photo Credit: CC BY-ND/Federal Student Loan Debt)

Financial aid is a necessity for many low- to middle-income students and their families. Thankfully, there are student loan programs designed specifically for people who fall within the low- to middle-income brackets. Banknote suggests those looking for ways to pay for college use this three-pronged attack.

Aim high for need-based qualification

If a student doesn’t qualify for student loans at one college, it is quite possible that student could qualify at a more expensive university. Sally Donahue, Harvard’s director of financial aid, points out to Banknote that need-based financial aid is contingent upon income and assets, relative to admission costs. Thus, not qualifying at a $20,000-per-year school doesn’t mean a $60,000-per-year option is out of the question.

“We have probably 600 families with incomes over $180,000 receiving grant aid right now, and that’s usually because they have two or three students in high-cost colleges,” says Donahue. “It just depends on where you go.”

Harvard happens to be a “no-loan” school that enables students to obtain the necessary financial aid via grants, scholarships and work-study programs. The Institute for College Access and Success indicates that there are more than 50 such no-loan schools across the U.S. from which to choose. Keep in mind that most require family income to be below $50,000 annually.

Tax credits offer long-term help

Carol Stack, co-author of “The Financial Aid Handbook,” claims that 2011 is a banner year for student loan tax credits. Specifically, the American Opportunity Credit is one to watch. Extended through 2012, this credit can mean an extra $2,500 for families, as long as at least $4,000 is spent each year on college-related expenses. Intended for the first four years of post-secondary education, the American Opportunity Credit applies 100 percent to the first $2,000 spent during the tax year, and 24 percent to the next $2,000. At least half-time enrollment is required and family income must not exceed $160,000 per year. Check with the IRS for more information.

The Lifetime Learning Credit is great for part-time students and those who attend college for more than four years. Approved college expenses up to $10,000 are reimbursed at a 20 percent clip.

Good aid for good students

Merit-based aid exists for men and women who may not qualify for need-based student loans, grants or scholarships. Collegiate financial aid search engines, like College Navigator and, state that $11 billion in merit-based aid is distributed annually. Thus, there are plenty of opportunities for good students to take advantage. Chris Long from Cappex, a sister company, advises students to find schools outside their geographic area that would benefit from their test scores and GPA.

“You should also apply to schools where you’re at the upper end of the academic scale. You’re going to be very attractive to those schools because they want to increase their average GPA, SAT and ACT (scores),” he said.




College Navigator

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