Kids & Money

When the financial aid offer comes up short, don’t give up hope

Updated: 2013-04-17T03:44:18Z

By STEVE ROSEN

The Kansas City Star

Is the financial aid offer from your high schooler’s dream school coming up short? Don’t stand idly by.

While the door may be closing on getting the big-dollar awards from college financial aid offices, there is still plenty of money available to help close your gap. And it’s been my experience that if the school really wants your son or daughter, it will try really hard to make it happen.

Each school may have its own rules about financial aid appeals or special circumstances reviews, but by and large the financial aid administrator — and not the admissions officer — is the gatekeeper to the funds.

With that in mind, your first step should be to contact the financial aid office and express your concerns. Make it clear that the school is your teen’s first choice.

Ask if there’s anything the college can do to make tuition more affordable. The college may want to see copies of financial aid award letters from the other schools on your student’s list. They might spot whether there was an honest mistake in the way the aid package was calculated.

Administrators have the authority to make adjustments, especially if there are unusual circumstances, such as a job loss, high medical bills, or setbacks due to superstorm Sandy.

For example, if a parent recently lost a job, the financial aid office might switch from using last year’s after-tax income figure to an estimate of current year income to determine aid eligibility, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb.com financial aid websites. Or, the school could come up with more money by repackaging the offer to include more loans than grants and scholarships.

The process, of course, is driven by documentation, so be prepared to put your cards on the table. That doesn’t mean making your case by saying that junior deserves more money because he’s an in-state resident, a 4.0 student and a heck of a trumpet player whose dream is to play in the marching band.

Instead, for example, if you lost a job or were cut back to part-time, provide a notice of the layoff, an unemployment insurance application or a letter from your corporate human relations department. Likewise, if you asked for an aid review and then happened to win the Powerball jackpot, that information should be disclosed so it can be taken into account as well.

While a few college aid offices will actively negotiate, it’s still not like bargaining at a car dealership where bluff and bluster can get you a better deal, said Kantrowitz. “It tends to be more formulaic,” he said.

Most colleges do not want to get into a bidding war with other schools. But they will match another school’s offer if the student has the right academic credentials and perhaps fits into a demographic category that the school is trying to attract, said Kantrowitz.

I believe in playing it straight with the financial aid officer. Be polite, don’t make demands, and save the drama and games-playing for fall Saturdays in October.

Keep in mind there is generally no appeal beyond the financial aid office. And if the answer is still no after all your efforts, then it may be time to move on to the No. 2 college choice. The cost of higher education can be outrageous, so why load up on debt if there are plenty of good, affordable choices.

One other suggestion: I’ve found that financial aid rarely stays in line with tuition, room and board. That’s why — under the right circumstances — it’s smart to ask for reviews of your college student’s aid package during sophomore, junior and senior years, too.

To reach Steve Rosen, call 816-234-4879 or send email to srosen@kcstar.com.

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