Mini graduation cap on rolled up cashThis is the time of year when families review college financial aid awards and agonize over whether they can afford the tab. Many parents don’t realize that students don’t have to accept the first award they receive from a college.  One reason is because it’s a buyer’s market at many institutions.

Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s harder than ever to get into college. That, however, is only true at the most elite schools that can reject nearly all applicants. Most colleges, according to annual Gallup surveys of administrators at private and public institutions, routinely fail to meet their freshman enrollment goals.

Here then are five tips for appealing a financial aid award:

1. Find out how to appeal.

Each school has its own appeal process. Consequently, if you are unhappy with an award, you should contact the relevant institution and ask about their procedure. Make sure you follow the instructions given.

 2. Know your Expected Family Contribution.

It will be difficult to determine whether a financial aid award is a good one if you don’t know your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is a dollar figure that represents what the college’s financial aid formula determined that the family can afford to pay for the upcoming academic year.

Here’s an example:  

  $60,000 College’s cost of attendance

- $25,000 Your EFC

  $35,000 The financial aid the family needs

In this example, a college would ideally give a child a $35,000 award to cover the gap between the college’s sticker price and what the formula suggests a family can afford.

Let’s say, however, that a college only gives the child a $10,000 award. That would leave a $25,000 gap, which would make it a poor award.

Colleges should include the household’s EFC right on the financial aid award, but they often don’t. If it is missing, ask for the figure and if the EFC indicates that the award is a mediocre one, try appealing.

3. Mention competing awards.

If a student receives competing awards, a family can use them as leverage to receive a higher offer elsewhere. Contact the school your teenager wants to attend and mention the better awards. The institution will likely want you to share these numbers. You could end up squeezing more money out of a desired school with that approach.

4. Consider appealing a merit award.

While some colleges and universities will only entertain appeals for greater need-based aid awards, plenty of schools will consider boosting merit awards to applicants who don’t have any financial need.

5. Be smart when you discuss your situation.

Don’t say the word “negotiate.” School administrators hate that term. Be diplomatic when talking with financial aid officers. Also, be as detailed as possible regarding why you need more assistance.

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