M.G. of Glen Head, NY writes:

My daughter got into her first choice college [Yea!]. Her financial aid award, however, left much to be desired. Can we -- and should we -- ask the college for more money?

The College Whisperer responds:

There's an old adage, as true in college financing as it is in fundraising: "If you don't ask, you won't get."

Most schools base financial aid awards on a number of factors, which could include merit (i.e., GPA, test scores) and, more often than not, need.

There are formulae -- sometimes intricate and mystical, other times, rather simple and straightforward -- based on such things as the student's FAFSA EFC (Expected Family Contribution) -- and awards typically consist of scholarships/grants, work-study and loans, or any combination thereof.

Some colleges will meet the full need of the student. So, if tuition, room and board is, say $30,000, and the EFC is $10,000, the award will cover the difference of $20,000.

Other schools will cover, by way of scholarships, work-study and loans, the full nut, regardless of EFC.

Still other schools -- and this is common among elite colleges, who feel they don't have to give you money in order to entice you to come -- will give most students very little, if anything.

The bottom line, of course, is that financial aid awards vary greatly from school to school, and even from student to student at the same college. The merits of such awards, then, must be judged on a case by case basis.

If you are fortunate enough to get a full ride (as in scholarships or grants covering the total cost, none of which has to be paid back), you've got it made in the shade.

Even without the college picking up the tab, scholarships (including those offered by the school and ones you apply for on your own) can, conceivably, make up the lion's share of college costs. If you've been diligent in searching and applying for scholarships, chances are you can and will bank some cash for college. [Remember what the late Senator Everett Dirkson once said: "A million dollars here and a million dollars there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money!" Today, of course, that would be billions, not millions...]

Most students, however, are faced with the prospect of a huge tuition bill, with little (if anything) in free scholarship money [you should have called College Connection!], and an "offer" of the opportunity to take out federal student loans (Stafford), private student loans, and parent (PLUS) loans.

If there is some free money on the table, or even none at all, can you -- and should you -- ask for more (or for some?)


What's the worst thing that can happen? The college will say no.

At best, you may actually get more than you had hoped for.

Most college financial aid offices have a formal policy regarding the "appeal" of financial aid awards. Some require a letter, or formal documentation evidencing change in circumstances (i.e., divorce, death, loss of employment). Others, less formally, will consider requests over the phone or even by e-mail.

Appealing the financial aid award, while not an exact science, by any means, is definitely an art form. Begging, pleading and groveling will generally get you nowhere. [Of course, if all else fails, why not?] Be armed with a factual basis as to why you or your child needs or deserves more money. Do play one school's award against that of another school. [Often, this ploy falls on deaf ears, but hey, if they really want you that badly...] Have a number in mind, as you will likely be asked, though not always directly, "How much do you need? And if you need or want an additional $5000, ask for $10,000. Remember, when reaching for the stars you first have to get by the moon...

If at all possible, negotiate the financial aid award before you accept the college's offer of admission. Again, if the school really wants the student, they may make concessions. On the other hand, if there are 1000+ applicants in the dreaded, no-man's land known as the waitlist, don't get your hopes up too high.

As the refrain from The Gambler goes, "Know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away. And know when to run..." While you can often get more money (or at least some money) from your college of choice, sometimes -- particularly in a tough economy -- you really can't get blood from a stone. Give it a try, but, if you do not get as much as you want or need, be prepared (financially and psychologically) to either accept the offer or to walk (or run) away.

Understand that what may seem like a dream school could easily turn into a nightmare of debt, and no college [let me repeat, NO COLLEGE] is worth saddling yourself with debt that will take the next 20 years (or more) to repay, while forgoing such other niceties of life, such as food and shelter!

There are colleges out there, mind you, that are using YOUR money to pay for campuses in Dubai and Shanghai -- like you (or they) really need them. There are others that, aside from making your $2000 deposit non-refundable, will also not apply it toward tuition, room, board or anything else that might directly benefit you.

Sometimes, as enticing as it may be, to ego and psyche, to say "yes" to such schools, it may well be more satisfying in the long run -- not to mention more financially rewarding -- to say, "thanks but no thanks," opting for a fine (sometimes better) academic education at a college that is truly more affordable.

I am often bemused at the number of students (not to mention parents) who drool over schools like Columbia and NYU, with their absurdly astonishing price tags, while giving short-shrift to colleges of the State University or City University of New York. That is, until they are told that, over the years, there have been more successful (money being only one of the attributes) graduates of SUNY and CUNY than from all of the Ivies combined! [Yes, like college acceptance rates, it's a numbers game. But given the legions of SUNY and CUNY grads out there, in all fields and at the pinnacle, just think of the connections and the networking possibilities!]

Even among private universities, there are true values and real bargains. [College Connection students and their parents already know this!] Seek and ye shall find, rather than take the word of, say, the President of Sarah Lawrence College (the most expensive college in the country), that the school is "worth every penny." [We're sure she feels the same way about her exorbitant salary, as well!]

Whatever college you decide upon, especially when cost is a factor, to paraphrase JFK, never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear!

Above all, for goodness sake, do the math (even if you intend to be an English major), and get the very best bang for your buck!
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The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer, the authors of referenced articles and websites, and such guest bloggers as may appear.
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