How to Appeal for More Financial Aid Without Becoming a Used Car Salesman
We had a mom of a senior reach out to us this week asking about how to work with colleges on financial aid packages. Let’s call her Barbara. She, like a lot of other parents, have now received all of the financial aid offers for all of the colleges on her daughter’s consideration list. The problem? Her daughter’s top choice college was offering her the least amount of financial aid. Barbara was asking us what she could do, and the good news is that she had a lot more options than she initially thought.
The other problem? She was worried about negotiating with the financial aid office, about coming off like Ed the used car salesman at Lou Glutz Motors in National Lampoons Vacation trying to seal the deal on a Metallic Pea 1983 Wagon Queen Family Truckster.
My advice? Don't negotiate. In fact, if you think you're negotiating with the financial aid office, you're doing it wrong. But before we get there, you need to understand a couple of key aspects of college costs and financial aid so you can speak a common language with the financial aid office. First, financial aid comes in two major flavors: Need-based (which uses an analysis of the family’s financial conditions) and merit-based (awarded based on grades, test scores, community service, how far you can throw a football, and a whole host of other traits). Yes, I know that colleges will say that student and parent loans are officially considered financial aid, but to me, that’s more marketing than reality. That’s a topic for another day, but for now, we will focus on grant financial assistance. Everyone gets how merit-based aid works: you either meet a published objective criteria (gpa and test score) or you meet some subjective assessment of achievement by a group of experts (faculty panel, athletic coaches, etc.). I find that most people (students, parents, and even some admissions officers) do not understand how need-based aid works and because of that, they tend to dismiss it. They think, “Well , we probably make too much to qualify,” and don’t give it a second thought. This is a big mistake.
Warning: acronym soup ahead The central goal of the financial aid office in determining need-based aid is to calculate an “estimated family contribution” or EFC. This is the college’s best guess at how much your family can pay toward the higher education for your child. They do this using a formula (often called a methodology) that looks at financial data gathered from you via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and sometimes from a secondary aid application called the CSS Profile. The analysis begins with the total cost of attendance (COA), then deduct your EFC, and if there is anything left over, that becomes your need. Every school is different in how they will attempt to meet that need, if there is any.
This math walk-through is communicated to you via a financial aid letter which breaks down the COA and how the college is meeting your need (if they are). This is a different form than the admission letter, which may have informed you that your son or daughter received “$16,000 as a Big Deal Scholarship recipient.” That’s great, but it doesn’t tell us anything about costs, the composition of all types of financial aid, and most importantly, the net price (what is left over for the family to pay after financial aid).
The challenge there is that these letters are often frustratingly complicated to read and understand, with confusing formats, insider jargon, sometimes indecipherable codes. In our practice, it is a yearly rite of passage of decoding these letters to help our families know what they are being offered and exactly how much they are being asked to pay. So, what happens if you find yourself in a situation like Barbara, in which a top choice school is significantly less affordable? Can you go back to the college and appeal for more financial aid? Yes, but you need to do a few things first. Start by taking a look at your financial circumstances to make sure there are not any conditions that the college may not know about. Think back to when you were completing the FAFSA and recall all the information you provided the college about your financial reality. Was there anything that you were not asked about that is a significant variable in your monthly budget? These special circumstances can be a loss of a job, a disability, increased out of pocket medical bills, specialized care of an elderly grandparent or a special needs child, etc.
Secondly, take a look at the various offers you have received and see if one school is offering significantly more aid. Most people assume that colleges will match an offer from another school. While I have seen it happen, this kind of "show us a competitors coupon" approach to financial aid is way more rare than you would think.
Here’s the key though: When you reach out to a financial aid office, your approach is one of sharing information and getting on the same page with your financial aid officer, not to negotiate. You have to understand that financial aid officers are educators, not used car salespeople trying to sell you a rally sport package . If you go in there “guns blazing” looking for some hard charging deal like you are owed something, you are missing a real opportunity. In most cases, the financial aid officer on the other end of the phone is a parent just like you, and understands how much of an investment college requires. They work at a college for a reason and they genuinely want to help you. In our experience, if you approach the conversation with good information and with the right attitude, you will find a supportive partner on the other end of the phone. They can help you, and Barbara find a path toward making a dream college more affordable.
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