5 Strategies for Appealing a College Financial Aid Package

By Farran Powell
US News World & Report
via Yahoo! Finance

Here are several strategies financial aid experts recommend for appealing a college financial aid package.

1.     Don't call it a negotiation

Colleges don't like that word because it sounds like you're bargaining at a bazaar or car dealership, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president at Cappex, a site that connects students with scholarship awards.  Blontz tells his financial aid clients to use the word "reconsideration" in their letters and emails to colleges. 

"First, thank them for the aid that's provided and ask for a 'reconsideration' in financial aid," he says.

2. Contact the financial aid office

The best shot for a financial aid appeal is if your family has experienced a change in financial circumstances since you applied for aid, experts say.  That special circumstance might be loss of a job, a pay cut, a disability, the death of a family member or an unexpected expense such a large medical bill.  For reconsideration of need-based aid, families need to provide documentation, preferably from a third party, of any financial changes that affect their ability to pay for school, the Cappex publisher says.

Schools can use this financial information to recalculate the minimum families are expected to pay for a year of college, a figure known as the expected family contribution. That figure is applied to the cost of attendance.

"These formulas tend to be very harsh, so most families don't think they have enough money," Kantrowitz says.

3. Reach out to the admissions office

"A common mistake is that parents really focus on the financial aid office," says Blontz, and the financial aid office only handles need-based aid.

College coach experts say most additional awards granted by schools are scholarships.  Families that have already been awarded some type of scholarships are more likely to get an increase in award money, says Blontz, who encourages families to start with the admissions office for extra money -- especially if the student already has a scholarship.

A typical increase in merit aid is between $1,000 and $5,000, college aid experts say, and that aid is usually guaranteed every year.  Families should confirm with the college that the increase in merit aid is for all four years, says Vanconcelos, who used to work at the financial aid offices at Tufts University and Boston University.

"The most successful negotiations are families who ask for little increases in merit aid," she adds.

4. Use a competing offer

Some schools are willing to adjust a student's award package to match a better offer from another college.  "We had received financial packages from several other schools that offered us more aid than the school in Boston," says Terri O'Neill, who was able increase her daughter's merit aid at a private Boston college by $10,000. "The increase offer was referred to as a scholarship." 

The amount of merit aid will depend on the school's endowment. Many nonprofit colleges use financial aid as a leverage tool, financial aid experts say.

5. Hold back on the deposit

College coaches advise families to hold back on placing a deposit.  "Once the college has the money, the family has lost leverage since the school assumes you're coming," Vasconcelos says, and the school might have more seats to fill and declined scholarships to offer closer to the deadline.

Financial experts say there isn't a reason to commit before the May 1 deadline until you have a complete picture of all your financial aid offers.  Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.