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Your child has applied to several colleges, and the financial aid awards are starting to arrive. But when you take a look, they’re less than what you expected. Or maybe your returning college student got less aid than he or she did last year. Is there anything you can do to get more financial aid?

First, compare apples with apples

When comparing financial aid awards from different colleges, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Specifically, look at what your actual out-of-pocket costs will be at each college, not just the total amount of aid offered. To determine your out-of-pocket cost, subtract the total amount of grants/scholarships and work-study offered from the total cost of each school. For example, consider the following three aid awards:

College A College B College C
Total Cost $30,000 $50,000 $70,000
Aid Package $13,000 $26,000 $56,000
Grants $10,000 $20,000 $50,000
Work-Study $0 $2,000 $1,000
Loans $3,000 $4,000 $5,000
Out-of-Pocket $20,000 $28,000 $19,000

In this example, even though College C is the most expensive school and has the highest loan amount of all three schools, it has the lowest out-of-pocket cost. And even though College B’s total aid package is double College A’s award, College B will end up costing you more than College A. In fact, College B will cost $9,000 more out-of-pocket than College C, even though College C’s sticker price is $20,000 more than College B.

Look closely at grant details

College grants often make up the largest portion of a student’s financial aid award, especially at private colleges. If your child’s aid package contains a college grant, you’ll want to understand the details. First, confirm whether it’s being offered for all four years or just one year. Second, is it based on need, merit, or both? If the grant is based on financial need, keep in mind that the amount may fluctuate with changes to your financial picture. Third, if the grant carries through all four years, find out if there are any requirements your child will need to satisfy to maintain eligibility, such as a minimum GPA, community service hours, or participation in a certain activity. Also, it couldn’t hurt to ask if the grant will increase each year to keep up with the likely annual increase in tuition and fees.

Getting a more favorable deal 

Let’s assume you’ve compared aid awards and you’re ready to zero in on one or two colleges that your child has his or her heart set on. Is it possible to request a more favorable aid package? The answer is yes. The financial aid administrator (FAA) at each college has the authority to exercise “professional judgment” to reduce the loan portion of your child’s aid award and increase the grant, scholarship, and/or work-study component. Your chances of prevailing are best in two situations:

  1. You have a special circumstance that affects your ability to pay (e.g., a recent job loss, prolonged unemployment, unusually high medical expenses, or some other situation that puts above-average constraints on your income and savings).
  2. Your child has been accepted at two competing colleges, and one has offered a more generous aid package than the other. In this case, you might try to play one college against the other. Although many colleges don’t mind losing an applicant to a more (or less) selective college, they generally don’t like to lose an applicant to a direct competitor.

If neither of these situations applies, you can still contact the FAA to plead your case, but the outcome may be more uncertain.

The process typically involves a polite business letter or email to the FAA, with a follow-up telephone call or meeting a week or so later. Avoid calling first and complaining. Instead, explain in positive terms how much your child wants to attend that particular school, highlight your child’s accomplishments, and politely request if any additional grant, scholarship, or work-study aid might be available. Make sure to put your child’s name at the top of all correspondence, and keep a copy for your records. You want to be persistent, but not to the point of being a pest.

Whether or not you’re successful will depend primarily on the individual circumstances of the college. How much discretionary grant aid does the college have available? Is it meeting its enrollment goals? Does your child possess the qualities or skills that would make the school more diverse and well-rounded in a way that fulfills the college’s needs? No one can predict the answers to these questions, which is why requesting a more favorable aid package can’t hurt, as long as it’s done the right way.


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