2) Crunch costs.
Check what's included in the college's cost estimate, said Kantrowitz. It should include indirect expenses like travel to and from campus and textbooks, as well as tuition, room and board. Fill in the blanks for any missing expenses so you can better compare different colleges' offers.
Look to see if the college estimates are reasonable, too, based on personal details like your student's major.
"A single physics or calculus textbook can cost you as much as $250," he said.
3) Think long term.
"Look at [college cost] from a four-year perspective rather than a one-year perspective," Fudge said.
The aid package's addendum typically contains details like whether a scholarship can be renewed in future years, and under what circumstances, he said. That's also where you'll find any conditions your student has to meet to keep the aid, like meeting a minimum GPA.
A generous aid package as a freshman doesn't mean your student will be awarded the same deal as an upperclassman. Depending on the terms, a college offering a smaller amount of annual aid, but as a four-year award, might be the more valuable offer, he said. (CollegeNavigator.gov offers breakdowns of average aid for freshmen and for all undergraduate students.)
That multiyear assessment is a better gauge of affordability, Fudge said, and can help you figure out the best plan to pay for college.
4) Ask for more help
If your financial situation has changed since filing for financial aid, consider preparing an appeal to the college. They may be willing to adjust your aid package, Kantrowitz said, although that may simply mean more loans, rather than additional grants.
You might also reach out for a reassessment if one college offers more aid than another. But any bump up in aid resulting from that tactic is typically because the reviewing college realizes it was missing a piece of information about your finances that other colleges had, he said.
"It's not because of your strong negotiating skills," Kantrowitz said. "Colleges really aren't car dealerships, where bluff and bluster can get you a better deal."