Last Minute Ways to Ease the Pain

If you haven't saved a dime, these resources and tips can help.

Plenty of families who have little or nothing in their child's education fund with college a year away manage to send their kids by finding ways to lower the bill and cobble together various sources of money (much of it, admittedly, from current income). Here are some ways to fill the gap:

  • Search for scholarships. Even if your child is neither a star athlete nor a straight-A student, the research could pay off. Sallie Mae, FastWeb and FinAid offer online access to free scholarship-search databases.
  • Apply to schools that offer merit awards. "In order to compete with public schools, second-tier private schools need to be aggressive with financial aid," says Philip Johnson, a financial planner in Clifton Park, N.Y. In a 1997 Kiplinger's survey, 50 of 120 schools we canvassed reported awarding non-need scholarships to more than 20% of their freshman class -- and the average award reduced total expenses by at least 15%.
  • Cut housing costs. Depending on the location, living in an off-campus apartment and cooking your own meals can cost much less than dormitory housing with a meal plan. Or consider becoming a resident adviser: Most get free room and board, and occasionally the school offers a tuition break.
  • Consider a community college. After two years, your child could transfer to a more-expensive, four-year school. Along the way, you might get a tax write-off. You might be able to claim a Hope Credit of up to $1,500 of qualified tuition and related exenses. The credit is equal to 100% of the first $1,000 you pay in tuition and fees and 50% of the second $1,000. You're fully eligible for the credit if you're a married couple filing jointly with an adjusted gross income of $85,000 or less.
  • Graduate early. Taking advanced-placement courses in high school -- and scoring well on the advanced-placement exams -- may reduce the number of credits your students need in college. That could help you slash a semester or even a year's worth of bills.

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