Thinking about how to pay for college is an important topic that parents and kids should talk about together. With the costs of college rising, sometimes deciding where to go for school is as simple as choosing the institution that gives you the best financial aid offer. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2001–02 and 2011–12, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 40 percent, while prices at private nonprofit institutions rose 28 percent, after adjusting for inflation.
During the 2011-12 school year, attending an undergraduate public institution cost students $14,300 while attending a private nonprofit school cost $37,800. With college price tags like that, it’s no surprise that students depend on financial aid to fund their higher education. But what do you do if your financial aid offer is not enough?
There are ways that you can boost your financial aid. But before you run off to the financial aid office demanding more money, there are a few things you should understand. First, financial aid policies differ from college to college, which means the aid you receive from one school likely won’t be the same offer you get from another.
Second, your parents play an important role in funding your education — at least that’s what the government says. The EFC, or the Expected Family Contribution, is the amount of money that a family is expected to contribute towards a student’s education. It’s determined by a family’s income and assets. Because the federal government considers funding college to primarily be a family responsibility, if your parents flat-out refuse to help, you won’t necessarily receive more aid. This is especially true if your parents have high incomes because it’s assumed they can help — even if they don’t.
If you’re unhappy with your financial aid award, there are steps you can take to appeal for more. Here are some ways that you can get more aid:
1. Take action early.
Schools are allocating how to use their financial aid resources as admissions letters get sent out. So if you have a change in circumstances or notice an error on your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), you need to notify the school right away. There’s a finite amount of money available. If you wait until the last minute, it might already be too late.
2. Appeal if there’s a change in circumstances.
If your family has undergone some major financial change — job loss, death, disability, a natural disaster, a major change in income — you can appeal to the financial aid office for a better package. Your school’s financial aid office should be able to reconsider your offer if you take the appropriate steps to file an appeal in time. You should contact the office directly, follow the their instructions, and be sure to include any supporting documents that will help your cause.
3. Explain beyond FAFSA.
Colleges use the FAFSA to determine the amount of aid you receive. But sometimes you have extenuating circumstances that just can’t be explained on a FAFSA form. For instance, if you’re supporting a grandparent or extended family members, you can explain your situation to the financial aid office — with documents supporting your claims in hand. Providing a more accurate picture of your financial situation might help you get more aid.
4. Use another college’s offer as leverage.
If you have received a more generous financial package from another school, you can ask the financial aid department of the competing college to match the offer. Be careful though — you don’t want to go too negative. Explain to the school that it’s your top choice, but it’s financially impossible for you to attend given the aid offer you received. This might be particularly effective if you are a top student with multiple offers from different schools.
5. Don’t negotiate or bargain.
If you’re hoping for more aid, don’t use the words bargain or negotiate. Financial aid officers aren’t there to help you get a bargain or negotiate with you to get a better offer. Their job is to help meet your financial needs so that you can attend the college, so be polite and illustrate your complete financial situation to the officer. You’re looking to receive help, so don’t be pushy or make demands.
6. Be specific.
Complaining about the financial aid offer you received won’t help if you aren’t specific about how much more you need to attend school.
7. Remember scholarships and grants.
You can really lower your college costs if you get a scholarship or grant — aid that doesn’t require you to pay back the money. So ask the school if you might be eligible for new scholarships or if there are new grants that have popped up since you applied. If you’re a desirable candidate for admission, you might consider asking the aid officer if it’s possible to discuss increasing your gift aid offer.
In addition, you should always be on the lookout for scholarships offered from organizations outside of the school that can subsidize your costs.
8. Apply to a generous school.
If you’re going to rely heavily on financial aid to pay for college, make sure you apply to schools that can support you. Research to find out what different schools cost and the types of aid packages they typically offer. You can usually find out how much a school meets its students’ financial needs. If it’s already too late — attend a community college to save money and apply again in a year or two to transfer schools.
9. Ask the school to review your Cost of Attendance.
Schools use the Cost of Attendance (COA) to help determine how much aid you should receive. But if you have extenuating circumstances — if you have travel really far to attend the college or have a disability that will add to your costs — you might be able to get the financial aid office to reconsider your financial need.
10. Just ask.
Don’t feel embarrassed or shy to ask for more aid. You have nothing to lose except time asking for more financial aid.