Before College: Can We Negotiate For Better Aid Offers to Make College More Affordable?

Sally and Steve Smith are a hardworking couple in their mid-50s supporting a household of four on $62,000/year. Their son Scott received financial aid offers from all three colleges that admitted him. But each leaves him with over $10,000 in unmet need, making them all unaffordable.

Borrowing large Federal Direct Parent PLUS Loans frightens the Smiths. “We’re not poor, but we do struggle to make ends meet,” says Steve. Sally adds, “We’ve saved up to help Scotty with college, but not enough. His sister will begin college in two years, and we’re not far from retirement.” Mike then poses a frequent question, “Can we negotiate better aid offers so we can afford at least one of these schools?”

The answer is, yes . . . sort of. But the Smiths need to remember six important things:

(1) Call it an appeal, not a negotiation. Colleges officials hate the word negotiation. And no offense to Scott, but his schools probably admitted several equally qualified students, so the Smiths don’t have much leverage.

(2). Act now! Appeals take time, and most admits must pay non-refundable enrollment deposits and accept their aid offers by May 1 or their schools cancel both their admission and aid.

(3) Submit the same appeal to all offices with aid for which Scott could qualify. The financial aid office administers need-based aid. Merit-based aid — which sometimes also requires financial need — may come from admissions or the college or academic department that admitted Scott. Check websites or call to find out.

(4) Appeal via letter or, if an office to which they’re appealing has one, its financial aid appeal form. Describe why Scott:

(a) Needs more need-based aid — i.e. why Sally and Steve can’t cover Scott’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and unmet need. This may be due to significant income reductions since tax year 2017, from which family 1040 data helped set Scott’s EFC. It may also be based on extraordinary but necessary expenses such as caring for elderly parents, unreimbursed catastrophic losses and uninsured medical expenses. Document all these with bills, third-party letters, pay stubs, receipts, 1040 forms, etc.

(b) Deserves more merit-based — submit proof of significant GPA or test improvements plus accomplishments Scott’s achieved since filing his admissions and institutional scholarship applications. The Smiths may also decide to submit aid offers from other schools, but they should be better offers from equally or higher-ranked schools.

(5) Calmly, honestly, rationally state their case. Administrators can’t act on sob stories, but they usually want to help students who match aid program rules.

(6) Don’t expect the moon. Successful appeals usually generate $5,000 or less in additional aid, largely because most schools’ freshman grant and scholarship dollars are already committed.

Need help building an appeal for more or better financial aid? Contact College Affordability Solutions for free consultations.

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