Student aid letters are hitting mailboxes across the country this month. My son has been getting these financial aid letters and so have millions of other families. All this mail inevitably leads to a question that’s on many parents’ minds:
If you are distressed with the dollar amount in a student aid letter, is it possible to negotiate for more money?
In many cases, the answer is yes.
Colleges cost too much money for families to automatically agree to a six-figure commitment. If you’re going to negotiate for a more generous student aid package, do it now. If you procrastinate, you are more likely to be out of luck because other families have beaten you to the feed trough. Colleges, which are hurting just like families, only have so much money to distribute.
Here are 5 ways to increase your chances of capturing more student aid:
1. Make a better case. Share any change in your financial circumstances. If there has been a layoff, high medical bills or you’re now caring for an ailing parent, speak up.
I followed my own advice and made a pitch for need-based aid this year for my son, who will be a college freshman, and my daughter, who will be a college senior. My husband left his long-time reporting position with the San Diego Union-Tribune at the end of 2008 for another job and got a severance package that included a one-time payment. That money boosted our income for 2009, which is what any financial aid award for the 2010-2011 school year would be heavily based on.
The FAFSA didn’t include a space to explain this income anomaly so I contacted the schools and provided them with this information. I had to supply the schools with a copy of the W-2 from the newspaper to support my claim that this money was a one-time deal and shouldn’t impact our chances for need-based student aid.
2. Try any argument. If a school really wants your child it might accept even a lame reason to toss you more money. Jerry Israel, the former president of the University of Indianapolis and the author of a wonderful book, 75 Biggest Myths About College Admissions, shared this tip with me. If a college wants a child and suspects that a bit more money will seal the deal, it could cough up more student aid for even a crazy reason. The example Israel gave me was a family asking for more student aid because the teenager’s aunt was a school alumni. Strange but true.
3. Get your teen involved. A school will be impressed if your child calls its office instead of you.
4. Provide a number. Try to be as specific as possible about what further student aid you need. Don’t just complain that the school costs too much. That’s what stressed financial aid officers hear all day long. If you need another $4,000 a year to make the commitment doable say so and back it up.
5. Be diplomatic. Negotiating is okay, but you can’t approach the process like you’re A-Rod’s agent. You’d be surprised how often financial aid officers are mistreated – honey goes a long way.
When Negotiating for More Student Aid Won’t Work
When will negotiating not work? If a student barely gets into a reach school, your chances for more financial aid are typically lower. Colleges reserve their best student aid for the applicants that they desire the most.
It’s also less likely to work at Ivy League and other very highly selective private schools. That’s what Seth Allen, the dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College told me earlier this year. Elite schools like Grinnell typically give very generous financial aid packages to begin with and with so many students clamoring to get into these institutions it’s unlikely they will budge at what they consider to be a fair offer. These schools, after all, don’t have to worry about filling their freshmen slots in the fall.
How to Decode a Financial Aid Letter
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.
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