NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – It’s a very exciting time for high school seniors who are finding out which colleges they’ve been accepted to.

It can also be a very overwhelming time for parents as they wonder how they’re going to pay for it all.

Experts say many families often leave money on the table because they don’t know where to look, or they don’t know they’re eligible.

“I had no idea this was going to happen,” said senior Will Ford after learning that he was just accepted to the University of Maryland. “Honestly, I’m really happy right now.

What can make families like Will’s even happier is receiving financial aid.

“The average tuition at the private could be in the $50,000-type range and in state type tuition is probably more in the $30,000-range,” said Donald Kerr, senior manager of student learning for AAA.

It’s hard to believe the skyrocketing costs, but help is available. The federal government is offering more than $150 billion in assistance this year.

“A lot of families… leave money on the table by not putting in that effort,” said Kerr.

Even if you don’t think you’re eligible, apply for financial aid, Kerr suggests.

“Everybody is going to get something. It may be a low interest rate loan, but you’ll get something regardless of your income,” Kerr said.

Once you receive all your financial incentives from the colleges of your choice, Kerr says go back to each of them and ask for more.

“Thank them for their generous offer but it is still going to be a struggle for you to come here financially, is there anything they can do to help you,” Kerr said.

He’s seen families score thousands of extra dollars with just one phone call.

After asking for more, Kerr recommends searching for outside scholarships.

“A lot of  people might this as a freshman… try it once, and never do it again,” Kerr said. “But it’s something you should do throughout the entire college years.”

Be as specific as possible with you search, said Kerr.

“Do what we call a brainstorming exercise: Write down all the different facts about the student, like to play volleyball, work in a soup kitchen, anything that makes them unique, you’re going to get a scholarship that is now tailored just for you,” Kerr said.

It might seem odd that AAA is offering college advice, but the Automobile Association has been providing assistance for all things college since 2004 as part of its membership.

For more tips from AAA, click here.

Why now is the right time to ask:

“It’s a very critical time right now, where parents and students are comparing different aid offers from different schools, and they are trying to see who is giving them the most money towards that tuition bill,” Kerr said. “So when you’re getting these offers from all the different schools, one thing people aren’t aware of is sometimes you can go back and ask the schools for more money. So if your top choice school hasn’t offered you as much as your second choice school, you can always go back to the first school as long as you ask in the right way. It’s not going to hurt.”

How do you ask for more?

“You want to stress what a good fit for this student, how successful this student is going to be at the campus, how it’s the right fit, what they are going to contribute to that college, as well as maybe mentioning something specifically, like how maybe $3,000-4,000 could help where you’re going to go to school, if there are schools that are in the same tier,” Kerr said. “They are somewhat competing for your business as a student, so it’s your one time to use a little bit of that leverage.”

Does this really work?

“I’ve seen families get thousands of dollars with a phone call. I’ve also seen other families write 20 letters and 20 phone calls and not get a dime. So there are so many variables to it, but it’s always worth a try,” Kerr said. “Yes, a lot of families do, they leave money on the table by not putting in the effort. They also miss some things during the process. I’ll see a lot of families that will leave money on the table because they think they’re not going to qualify for financial aid. So they don’t bother to fill out the forms.”

What about scholarship money?

“You can search for scholarships all on your own, it’s a great source for additional funds. A lot of people might do this as a freshman year activity, they try it once, they get a little frustrated with the process and they never do it again. But it’s something you should do throughout the entire college years, every single year, to try and get money,” Kerr said.

Where should people look?

“Looking for scholarships can be a very frustrating process,” Kerr said. “So I like to tell families instead you need to spend time preparing before you look for scholarships. Do what we call a brainstorming exercise based on the student. Write down all the different facts about the student: They are left handed, they like to play volleyball, they work in a soup kitchen. Anything that makes them unique whatsoever: What they want to study, what their future plans are,” Kerr said. “And once you have a really solid list, now you go back to your search engine and put all those things as key words. You’re going to get a scholarship that is now tailored just for you, the results are going to be very manageable. And you’re going to get a chance of winning that scholarship because you tailored it to who you are as an individual.”

Since when does AAA provide college assistance?

“We’ve been doing this since 2004, and not a lot of people are aware of it. We can help families with any part of the college process, whether it’s planning for college, paying for college, and even refinancing and restructuring that college debt after they get out of college. We just provide them the guidance, the assistance they are looking for, and it’s a member benefit, so we don’t charge anything for this,” Kerr said. “You’re talking about the financial future of your child and their education so it is a critical topic. If you’re unsure of anything, you want to make sure you’re doing everything correctly, it’s a great idea to reach out and get some advice.”

Suggestions regarding student loan debt:

“Whenever you graduate, if your student loan is going to be equal to your starting salary, you’ll be in good shape financially. So after four years of college, if you’re walking away with $50,000 in student loan debt, and you’re walking into a job paying you $50,000 a year, you’re going to be OK financially,” Kerr said. “The loans that I see that are $200,000 in student loan debt and a job paying $30,000 or $40,000 a year, those are the ones that really struggle. So if you know up front where you’re going to be after four years, it can help. You don’t want to make it all about the money, that could backfire, but you need to consider that. There are things you can do to get out and [refinance] that debt to make the payments manageable for your situation. There is help out there. Don’t get overwhelmed.”

 

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