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Negotiating Your Teen's Financial Aid

Does this sound familiar? Your teen is in a toss-up over the college he/she really wants to attend and that other good, but still second choice, college. Where he or she will actually end up all depends on who offers the best financial aid package, right? Not necessarily...

"In the past few years, colleges - especially the selective ones - have become more flexible about their initial [financial] offer," states author Kalman Chany in his book, Paying For College Without Going Broke (Random House, $18). While the door to bargaining may be open, scoring some extra financial aid money can be a tricky task. Prepare yourself with these tips from Chany.

Evaluate Your Situation
If you hope to improve your child's financial award, don't accept admission to the college before trying to negotiate! If you do, there will be little desire for the financial aid officer (FAO) to entice you with a better offer. If your teen hasn't accepted the college's offer yet, then decide where you stand.

If your child's grades and scores just barely got them into the college, securing more aid is unlikely, states Chany. "We know of one college that keeps an actual list of prospective students, in order of their desirability, which they refer to when parents call to negotiate." You, the parent, should make the call even if the FAO says he/she prefers to speak to the student.

Before the Call
Plan your plea. Be prepared to fax copies of documents for proof of your situation if you are asked. New information, such as that listed below, will gain you the most ground:

  • Your financial circumstances were improperly indicated by the financial aid form because you support an elderly relative, have non-reimbursed business expenses, high-margin debts, etc.

  • Your financial situation has changed since the base year (you are now separated, divorced, widowed, lost your job, etc.)

  • Your child was offered a better aid package from a comparable school - a wonderful leverage point, says Chany.

  • Negotiation Time
    When you call, try to speak with the head FAO or his/her assistant. Whomever it is you get connected with, write down his/her name. The FAO will probably not be able to give you an answer on the spot, so expect a "We'll get back to you." When following up, a name, date, and record of the conversation will be important.

    As for the conversation itself, be friendly, open, businesslike, and organized - never yell, says Chany. Being reasonable can only help you.

    When negotiating, decide on a dollar figure you can afford, but be fair. Otherwise, you may lose your credibility. And, stay away from words like "bargain" or "negotiate." Instead, say you wish to "appeal" your child's financial aid package and "present your facts." If you are near a deadline, ask for an extension, get the person's name who grants it, and follow up with a letter (certified mail, return receipt requested) for documentation.

    Special notes: If your child applied for "early decision," he/she has committed to attend and won't have much luck with financial aid negotiating. If your child is an "early action" applicant, he/she is not required to attend; applying and getting accepted to other colleges will improve your bargaining position.

    Final Thoughts
    Remember, even if you make a mess of your case or lose your temper, your child cannot lose a financial award package or his/her college admission acceptance. And, "accepting an award does not commit a student to attend that school," says Chany. So, if your teen can't decide between two schools, accept both award packages - don't miss the deadlines! This will give him/her more time to decide on a college.