CHICAGO — Cutting a better deal on college financial aid can be more than a parents' fantasy.
Increasingly, private schools are quietly using the practice to help attract the students they want in a challenging economy.
The practice of increasing aid on request has emerged relatively recently as college tuition has soared almost out of reach for ordinary families, according to Bruce Hammond, an independent college counselor based in Charlottesville, Va.
Now, many higher-priced schools hold back some money for select students who might be on the fence about whether to attend.
"I routinely advise my students, 'Ask politely for more,'" says Hammond, who also is co-author of The Fiske Guide to Getting Into the Right College. "The recession may have made institutions a little more likely to deal."
The tactic may come in handy this month as admitted students and their parents weigh which school to attend. All but the most generous of the financial aid packages mailed out nationwide in March and April leave families still looking at huge cost commitments over four years.
The average list price of tuition and fees for the current academic year is $26,273 at private colleges and $7,020 for in-state students at public universities, according to the College Board — up 4.4 percent and 6.5 percent respectively from a year ago.
A sizable amount of financial assistance is available. Grants and tax benefits total an estimated average of $14,400 per student at private universities and $5,400 at public schools. Still, once you add in room and board, it's easy to run up a tab of $100,000 or more over four years.
Coupled with a tough economy, it's no wonder more families are applying for financial aid than ever before. Applications for federal student aid rose 21 percent to 6.6 million in last year's first quarter, the peak period for applications, in the aftermath of the meltdown and are expected to increase again this year.
It's still rare for colleges to publicly acknowledge that they sometimes bump up financial aid on request, not wanting to be seen as haggling over tuition.
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which has a daunting price of $55,000 a year in total costs, is one of the few schools that does. Michael Steidel, director of admissions, calls it "just good old common sense" to save some extra aid money for the most talented students.
"We don't use the word 'negotiate'," he says. "The only way that we can review a situation is if you show us what you've got from other institutions — kind of lay out your cards on the table — and we'll see if we can close the gap."
Carnegie Mellon even has a form to request a financial aid review. A committee of school officials meets to go over the requests in the second half of April. Last year, 63 percent of those who sought more aid got it, receiving an additional $6,200 on average.
"We're just trying to help out and make the money go as far as it possibly can to those that really need it," Steidel says.
Here are some tips that could help get your college aid offer increased:
- Understand the process
Before you ask for more money, do your homework about how the aid process works and whether there's an appeals process in place. If you aren't working with a college consultant, read college planning books, visit sites such as Finaid.org or CollegeBoard.com, or simply Google 'appeal financial aid' and you'll find plenty of information and advice.
Don't expect a bidding war. For the schools that negotiate, the process is structured and formulaic, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.org.
"It's not like going into a car dealership, where you can get a better price by bluffing," he says. "If you go in and try to get more aid by shading your circumstances and pretending to be poor, that isn't going to help."
- Cite special circumstances
While colleges abide by a federal formula in determining your financial need, they can adjust an aid package based on unusual circumstances. Those include a parent's job loss or salary reduction, high medical costs, divorce or any other recent development that would alter your presumed ability to pay based on 2009 tax data.
In such cases, the family should contact the financial aid administrator at the school and ask for an appeal, formally called a professional judgment review or sometimes a special circumstances review.
- Show competing offers
If a comparable school has given you a better financial aid offer, use it as a bargaining chip but with caution. Many schools need to hear other reasons in order to reevaluate your package, according to Kalman Chany, president of Campus Consultants, a financial aid advisory firm in New York. You might want to cite, if not one of the unusual circumstances mentioned above, another legitimate cause of increased financial stress such as a big upcoming required expenditure, costs of caring for an elderly parent or, for example, the fact you live in an area with a high cost of living.
"If you just go at it as 'These other schools offered me more money, what are you going to do for me?' they may well say they don't negotiate or do appeals," Chany says. "But you can request reconsideration. It's a matter of semantics."
- Be concise
Be polite, be concise and focus on the facts in a letter or e-mail asking if there's anything the college can do to improve the aid package. Your goal, Kantrowitz notes, should be to get the financial aid administrator on your side by providing information, such as some of the factors described above, that any reasonable person would consider sufficient for an adjustment.
Don't ramble on in a long letter about how happy you are that your child was accepted, how special she is and what she will add to the school. Colleges hear that all the time.
- Don't telegraph your intentions
Consider stating in the letter that if School A matches School B's offer, your child will attend School A. But don't overplay your hand.
Calling the school as soon as you get the aid package, for example, is a bad idea because it telegraphs that your child wants to go there badly. So can certain wording in your letter requesting more aid. Signaling too strongly that a school is the top choice lessens any incentive its officials may have to sweeten the deal for you.
Chany, who also is the author of Paying for College Without Going Broke, cites an example of a parent who ruined her chances of getting more aid in the final sentence in an otherwise well-crafted letter of appeal. "No matter what happens," the letter ended, "Jonathan is looking forward to coming to the school next year."
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