Increase Your Financial Aid Award With These Two Questions

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Every year about this time I get frantic calls from parents who have just realized how much their kids’ college choices are really going to cost them.

“What the #%$&@?!”, is a common response.

By now, most students have received one-page letter known as the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR typically lists the total annual cost of attendance, a figure that can exceed $70,000 in some cases, followed by the types and amount of financial aid the student qualifies for at that school.

In many cases, “financial aid” consists of little more than a student loan or the promise of a low paying campus job.

The difference between the total cost of attendance and the amount of your financial aid award is the amount that the student (or more likely you, their parent) is expected to pay to attend that school for the year. The net cost after calculating for financial aid can be staggering, in some cases far exceeding what a family can actually afford. 

At this point in the process your options are limited. However, you may be able to increase your financial aid award with these two questions.

Ask for more money

Schools claim to never negotiate financial aid. However, most will work with families “on a case-by-case basis” to make attending their school more affordable.

If your school offered a merit-based scholarship, consider appealing your financial aid award and asking for more money. Most schools offer a formal appeals process that may result in a higher grant or scholarship for your student.

To learn more about ”How to Appeal for More Financial Aid for College” check out this great article by Mark Kantrowitz.

A less formal way to handle this would be to contact the school’s financial aid office directly and ask them these two questions:

First: “Is there anything that we, as a family, can do to make attending your school more affordable?” Often, a school will direct you towards other scholarships at the school or other financial aid opportunities that you may have been unaware of.

Maybe there is a music, leadership or other scholarship that your student would qualify for but that must be applied for separately. Even if the award is modest, it’s money that you wont have to spend or your student won’t have to borrow.

Second: “Is there anything that you, as a school, can do to make attending your school more affordable for our family?”  Private colleges and universities will often provide a financial aid award that they feel is reasonable, but they may be able to do better if asked.

Don’t be afraid to explain your personal financial situation. Maybe you have had a job change, or health related expenses that make paying tuition more difficult. Feel free to share the amount of financial aid you are being offered at other schools and ask if the school you are looking at would consider matching it.

Many private schools struggle to meet their enrollment goals, especially when it comes to attracting the most talented students. This time of year is critical for them as they know that students are still free to make other choices. If the school really wants your student, they may come up with additional financial aid dollars beyond what was originally offered in the Student Aid Report.

Remind them that you haven’t made a final decision and you are still considering all your options including other schools that may be more affordable for your family. If you have or will have more than one student in college at a time, let them know.

No guarantees

Appealing your financial aid award won’t work at every school.

In fact, most public colleges and universities are limited on what they can offer students for financial aid. However, they may have scholarships that you didn’t know about that your student may qualify for. If so, they can at least point you in the right direction.

Likewise, certain very selective private colleges limit their financial aid to students with the greatest financial need. Since all the kids who attend these elite institutions have excellent grades, super high ACT/SAT scores, etc., even the very best students will get little, if any, merit-based financial aid unless they can also demonstrate financial need. Nevertheless, it never hurts to ask, especially if you have a truly exceptional student.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get

Whether you file a formal appeal of your financial aid award or simply contact the school to discuss your situation, asking for more help can pay off.

This is completely based on anecdotal, non-scientific research, but in my experience private schools will often increase a student’s merit-based financial aid award by at least a few thousand dollars per year, if you ask.

Multiply that by 4 years, and it adds up.

Always be respectful and humble. Make sure the school understands that you are not trying to get more money just to get more money. You are trying to make attending their school an affordable option for your student and your family. Come at this from the point of asking for help and you may be rewarded with additional money for college.

As my own mom always says, “It doesn’t hurt to ask!” One thing is for sure, if you don’t ask for more money for college, you won’t get more money for college. Imagine shaving $10,000 or more off your tuition expenses just because you asked a couple simple questions.

If you appeal your award and get an increase in your financial aid, please let me know. I would love to hear your story.