When most high school students start looking at colleges, they think about what the college offers in terms of academics and extracurriculars. But when the financial aid packages from schools come in the mail this spring, the final decision will likely be made with dollars and cents in mind.
"A good financial aid package is as important as the major, course of study and geographic location," says Bob Friedman, the university director of student finance at Yeshiva University in New York. "It comes at the end of the search, and it's absolutely a top concern."
Though financial aid officers have some latitude in how much they can offer students, don't expect that securing a better aid package will be as easy as snaring a deal on a vacation or flat-screen TV, says Marty Carney, DeLand, Fla.-based Stetson University's director of financial aid.
"Don't come in with the expectation that financial aid offices are in the business of negotiating like used-car salesmen," he says. "In many cases, schools don't negotiate financial aid awards."
That said, it never hurts to ask. To get the best possible aid package from your dream school, follow these tips.
1. Make colleges compete. If you're a fantastic student and have plenty of offers, you may have a better shot of getting an improved financial aid package at your top school, Carney says.
"Some schools have a policy to match other school's financial aid award offers," he says.
In a letter, explain why you consider this school to be your first choice, and that you'd come "if the school could make it financially feasible for you," Carney says. Include the competing institution's financial aid offer.
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2. Ask for a reassessment. FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the document that determines a student's eligibility for federal financial aid, and in many cases, the additional awards offered by schools themselves. Financial aid for students is calculated from "base year" data. For example, for the 2009-2010 academic year, the base year is the 2008 calendar year.
Financial aid is calculated with the assumption that the income and assets will remain stable, but in this economy, that's often not the case. If your family's financial circumstances have changed, it's wise to ask for a reassessment, Yeshiva's Friedman says.
"If somebody lost a job, or if your assets are worth 75 percent what they were worth before, (financial aid officers) need to know that," he says. "If you can document it, these are things that a school can take into consideration."
Other changes that may have an effect on financial aid include the death of a parent, divorce and high medical expenses.
3. Explain money issues outside of FAFSA. FAFSA puts students and parents under the financial aid microscope to determine how much they can truly pay for college. Still, the endless forms don't capture every detail or always represent the true picture of a family's finances, says Marc Hill, a financial planner and founder of ReduceMyCollegeCosts.com.
"Maybe the parents have a grandparent that they're supporting in some fashion, such as a nursing home," he says. "That's not captured on the FAFSA. But if you can document that to the financial aid officer, (she) may be able to change the numbers to better reflect your ability to pay."
Because financial aid officers have some latitude to account for special circumstances, you may net additional aid based on the nuances of your situation.