Obtaining More Financial Aid

Most things are negotiable. That includes college financial aid.

I know that to be true because I have negotiated successfully for an increased aid package for my daughter. I recall the situation quite clearly, even though it happened decades ago.

My daughter applied Early Decision to a small liberal arts college and was accepted in December. As with many colleges, the financial aid package arrived along with the good news. However, after analyzing the aid offer, my wife and I determined that our Expected Family Contribution plus the amount of our daughter’s student loans were more than we could handle, as a family.

So, we sat down and did some calculations and came up with a figure that we thought we could manage. This figure included a hopeful increase in the school’s grant/scholarship aid and a reduction in the amount of student loans our daughter would have to bear.

Next, after carefully organizing these numbers and assuming as much of an objective, non-emotional manner as possible, I called the school’s director of financial aid. He turned out to be not only quite cordial but also quite understanding. Our conversation lasted all of ten minutes, if that. I explained some deeper levels of our family’s financial needs, details that did not appear on any of the three financial aid forms I filled out to accompany my daughter’s application.

The director asked me to document and send to him the additional information I had mentioned. I did that.

About 10 days after I sent this additional information, my daughter received a revised financial aid package that had both an increase in the school grant and a reduction in her loans. The total of these two actions did not cover 100% of what we felt was our need, but it was in the 80% ballpark, enough for us to manage our daughter’s college years. A happy ending.

Back to my opening sentence above: Most things are negotiable. This straightforward exercise on my part did pay dividends for Mom, Dad, and daughter. This is something that you parents of college-bound high school seniors should keep in mind. Of course, you college-bound seniors should also keep this in mind. Negotiating can make a significant financial difference for you and your family.

I was reminded about my aid negotiating experience when I saw a recent article: 4 keys for negotiating a better college aid offer. I’d like to give you some excerpts from that article, along with some comments from a thread I posted on the College Confidential discussion forum about it. From the article:

“… There’s certainly an art to netting more assistance, although no college will improve a package unless you’re diligent, rational and press your case. Now’s the time to get savvy if you’re on the fence about which school to attend.

“Officially, if you ask any college admissions office in public whether they’ll match or beat aid offers from other colleges, they’ll tell you no. Yet with more than 7,000 colleges in the U.S., there’s plenty of competition for the best students. I’ve seen it in my state, where the top students are highly recruited by a number of out-of-state schools. Many, if not most of them, receive generous scholarships or tuition discounts. …

“… Once you have aid offers to consider, your first move is psychological: Remember that you’re empowered to negotiate. You won’t know what the best offers are until you press for them. Here are four essential steps for doing that …”

  • Contact aid offices directly and ask for better offers that substitute grants for loans. Nearly every school can offer you a package of loans, which you should avoid. “If one school’s financial aid package makes it more affordable than another … remember you can call the financial aid office of the other school, let them know what you received and see if they can match the offer.” People do this with cars all the time by getting dealers to compete. There’s nothing distasteful about doing this with college. A lot of money is at stake.
  • Know what you’re being offered. Details are critical. Some schools may offer work-study as part of the package or other assistance. “It’s important you understand what the [total] offer truly is, which often can involve calling financial aid offices for details on terms you may not understand … “‘Self-help’ is often one: It could mean the income a student is expected to earn, yet separate from work-study. You might qualify for minimum wage work-study — but you might get a better offer from an off-campus job. You may or may not want to consider this as part of your overall package when deciding among colleges.”
  • Appeal the aid package if it’s inadequate. “Ask for your financial aid award package to be ‘reevaluated … This can occur via the ‘Special Circumstances form’ — available from any financial aid office — to update financial information. Also see if there are more resources they can recommend (i.e.: private scholarships you didn’t qualify for previously when you had less financial need).” Nothing will happen unless you make the effort to ask for an appeal or “professional review.” 
  • Ask for everything that’s available in the form of scholarships. Since college financial aid can be a black box process, it’s unlikely you’ll know which other forms of grant-based aid are available. There can be many pleasant surprises. “Often, schools have funds set aside from their own scholarship and grant money, intended to attract good students who are considering other options … Often, students who are on the fence about their college decision — who have also mentioned another school giving them a better offer in previous conversations — may qualify for this money.” [The information in quotes comes from Mike Brown, managing director of Nitro, an online source for college financing.]

As you may see, way back when I was negotiating for more aid, I was doing essentially all of these things instinctively. The point here is that you should not be afraid to ask (nicely and objectively) about getting more aid from a particular school. But … you have to ask!

What did some of the CC forum posters think about getting more financial aid? Here are a few of their comments:

– Leverage one school against the other…remember, this is the business part. If you can find schools that are natural competitors, that is best. See Notre Dame and BC. Also, best chance is for your child’s safety level schools. They are the most motivated to deep discount price in order to get your kids credentials to attend their school and bring up their averages.

– In my opinion, a key point missed in this article is to get the student involved in the discussion. Maybe I am being naive, but I would bet that a financial aid officer or a college dean would rather hear the voice of the student than the parent during the process. I would also bet that the officer or the dean would continue the discussion on behalf of the student rather than put it on the pile with the rest of the parent discussions. This would require some extensive coaching by the parents on the language of financial aid and their own personal situation. But I think we sometimes underestimate the persuasiveness and the abilities of our kids.

– Financial aid at grad school is totally different. Most of it is purely merit and how the work you plan on doing in grad school fits in with a professor that is doing that work. The prevailing wisdom is that if you are not going to a fully funded PhD program, then it is not worth it to go.

– Imo grad school is a lot harder to negotiate … A friend of mine is going for a PhD and two peer schools he was accepted to would not match each others offers (one had better relocation, one had a better stipend, etc). It’s more about what the school has available for that specific position in the dept, etc.

– It is highly unlikely that you are going to negotiate merit even at the Masters level. Grad school admissions and financial aid is vastly different from undergrad. Your best bet if is to find out if your can get tuition remission benefits from your job to help defray the cost of grad school.

The bottom line appears to be: Be reasonable, objective, and documented. As the article concludes:

“… Parents, a note of caution: Don’t call up a college’s aid department and start berating them over the meager amount of aid in their offer. That won’t get you anywhere. Submit all of your appeals in writing. … Above all, make a careful, reasoned argument in writing about why your family needs more aid. Keep focused on your goal: You want to obtain as much grant-based aid as possible.” …

So, Moms and Dads and about-to-be collegians, remain calm when you see that financial aid package. Also, be prepared to execute the strategies mentioned above as you work the art of your deal.

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.