You Don’t Always Have to Accept the First Financial Aid Award You’re Offered

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If you are like nearly half of all college students today, you count on financial aid to attend college. In fact, many experts — several quoted in this blog — suggest that you use financial aid awards as a way to evaluate the schools you’re looking at. What if, however, even after applying to a number of schools and looking at the various packages that you’ve received, that the financial aid offered simply isn’t enough to allow you to attend college.

This is not an uncommon dilemma. On the contrary, it is one that has confronted literally millions of families who are wondering how to afford their children’s college. Millions of families have faced that dilemma, but there are steps that families can take to boost an inadequate aid award. Lynn O’Shaughnessy, from CBS MoneyWatch, suggests a handful of ways that you can choose to approach an inadequate aid award.

Double check the award.
While it doesn’t happen all the time, schools do make mistakes with their awards. One way to determine whether a mistake may have been made is to compare the award letter with those from other schools to which you applied. If the financial aid letter is significantly lower than the awards from other colleges, contact the school that sent the inferior aid package and ask them to double check to make sure the award is accurate.

The initial offer may not be the best offer
O’Shaughnessy points out that Jerry Israel, the former president of the University of Indianapolis and the author of 75 Biggest Myths About College Admissions, believes many initial aid awards to students may be “lowball offers.” The initial award “will likely be a figure that intends to be the lowest the college reasonably expects you to accept.” So, like buying a used car or dealing with an insurance claim, never assume that the first offer is the best offer. Be prepared — and don’t be afraid — to negotiate.

Appeal your financial aid award
While it is not something that schools are quick to shout out loud about, it is sometimes possible to successfully appeal disappointing financial aid awards. If the aid package you or your student receives an aid package that seems a bit on the anemic side, you can ask a college to reconsider the award. Just don’t approach the school and announce that you want to “negotiate.” Use some finesse and diplomacy.

Contact the right financial aid officer
Find out what the school’s appeal process is. Some schools require families to complete an online appeal form. When sending emails or letters make sure you are directing the correspondence to the right person.

Reveal your other (better) offers
If you applied to multiple schools and received stronger aid awards from other colleges and universities, you will be able to make a better case in appealing your aid award. Contact a school with a weaker award and explain that you — or your student — would like to attend, but money is an issue and other schools have provided larger packages. If the school is willing to reconsider the award, staffers will typically ask families to fax over or scan and email the higher offers for comparison.

Update your financial circumstances
If your family has experienced changes since you submitted your financial application, update the school. Changes that can impact an award include deaths and births in a family, divorce or separation, large medical bills and the loss of a job.

Recheck your FAFSA and other aid applications
The reason why the offer might look miserly could be because the parent who completed the financial aid application made some mistakes. Take another look at the figures on all the applications to make sure they are accurate. Also, if you sent in your application before you filed your income taxes, be sure to go back and update the applications to reflect your final tax numbers. This can sometimes make a difference when the school is looking at financial aid awards.

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