College financial aid 101

11:05 PM, Jan 24, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- There's no question saving sufficiently for a child's college education can be a daunting task for most any family. And experts say there's also no question that task has people trying harder -- and doing more -- than ever before.

"They want to know, kind of upfront, what are the choices, what are the possibilities going to be with financial aid and scholarships," said Jane Nordhorn with the admissions office at St. Catherine University.

Nordhorn said it's common now to have high school sophomores -- not just juniors and seniors -- touring college campuses.

But families are doing far more than just making an early visit.

Experts say kids are taking standardized tests over and over again, hoping for a score that will secure them additional aid money.

"People taking the test three, four, five times is absolutely something that is common," said Kristin Greene with Northern Lights Tutoring.

It's that new trend of taking tests time and time again that has fueled Greene's business, as she tutors students on how to handle the long-format exams.

"Just like you train for a road race or for a marathon, you have to train your brain to focus for that long," Greene said.

Greene adds that the results are well worth it: she's seen students improve their ACT score from 21 to 29. And she believes the result of that improved score more than covers the family's initial investment of $2,000 for a typical student.

"You can turn that two thousand dollar investment into twelve thousand dollars a year for college. That's 48 thousand dollars," she said.

One Twin Cities-area family says they believe in the value of Greene's services. Doug and Mary Rhodes hired Greene to tutor their daughter, Amanda, now a freshman at Bethel University.

"She's a great student. She was always a really good student, but she always had that test-anxiety thing," Doug said about his daughter.

But with Greene's help, the Rhodes family said Amanda improved her ACT score by three points. And that translated into true dollars. The family believes they saved $5000 more per year, given the higher score.

"You can't do that in the stock market," Doug said.

Greene isn't the only one charging a premium but promising to deliver results.

Ron Ramsdell founded the College Aid Consulting Services -- the first business of its kind in the country -- back in 1990. The company helps families navigate the financial aid process in several ways, including: helping to fill out financial aid forms; determining the best college match for the student; and negotiating with the college.

"Colleges can do anything they want. If they want that student in that freshman seat in that very first year, they're going to come up with more money," Ramsdell said.

But that kind of insight and expertise also comes with a price tag. Ramsdell charges $850 for his services. He estimates, however, that he helps families get two to nine thousand dollars more, per year, than they could get on their own.

"The parents could do it on their own. But what results do you wish, the best or just average?" Ramsdell said.

But in the end, a financial aid guru turned author says it always comes back to the plain and simple advice... of save, save, save.

"From birth, parents should be thinking about planning for their child's life after high school," said Carol Stack, co-author of The Financial Aid Handbook: Getting the Education You Want for the Price You Can Afford.

"Sometimes people put off saving for college or post-secondary education because, 'I don't have 500 dollars a month. I don't have a thousand dollars a month,'" she said, adding, "It can be ten dollars a week."

Stack said she believes it's imperative for students to take a rigorous course load and specialize in activities. She also believes a good match between student and college will richly reward the student.

"The best thing families can do is help their child actually assess their child's own strengths and interests and make a match in terms of the kinds of things that a college says it values and most likely rewards in its scholarship program," Stack said.

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