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How To Get The Best College Financial Aid Package

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NEW YORK (CBS NEWS) - It's crunch time as families weigh financial aid offers from multiple colleges. And anxiety over the potential of going into six-figure debt can keep them awake for many a night.

Although not every college submits a complete financial aid offer after they send out acceptance letters, most do. That puts a sharp focus on the decision -- for parents and the student -- about whether it's worth go into debt to go to college.

However, you have more leverage than you think to improve an aid offer. Even families with a freshman or sophomore in high school can start the selection process now to increase their chances of garnering the best-possible aid package.

This time of year I turn to the sage advice found in Kalman Chany's Paying for College Without Going Broke, published by Princeton Review and in its seventh edition. I interviewed Chany years ago and keep returning to his books as I scout for spot-on advice about college affordability.

What's little known is that some colleges can be exceedingly generous, but they rarely advertise it. They can tap money socked away in their kitties -- their endowments -- to offer generous debt-free packages. The problem is, outside of the colleges known to be basking in billion-dollar-plus endowments, it's tough to identify which schools are going to pony up.

One benchmark that Chany recommends is a college's "endowment per student." This is simply the endowment's amount of money divided by the number of students. While this isn't an iron-clad gauge of a school's generosity, it's a good place to start.

"Don't necessarily be scared if a small school has a small endowment," Chany advised, "take a closer look at what that means. Earlham College in Indiana has a small endowment relative to, say, Harvard, but it has a very high endowment per student."

In financial aid negotiations, you'll have more leverage with colleges having high endowments and a willingness to spend directly on students to replace loans with grants. That's the keystone of your quest in the aid process.

Of course, it also helps tremendously if you have offers on the table from colleges that meet more than 90 percent of need. And there are no hard-and-fast rules on meeting need. Some no-name private schools will be very generous while huge state schools won't part with a dime of their endowment.

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