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Do’s and don’ts in appealing the student aid awarded to your college-bound child

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In contrast to the reports that superwealthy parents have paid six-figure bribes to get their children into the best universities, many families struggle to find the cash to pay for their children’s education.

Part of the outrage over the college-admissions scandal — in which the FBI claims uber-rich parents spent a total of $25 million to get their children into elite colleges — is the amount of money that didn’t go to pay for tuition, room and board. It’s astounding how much these folks allegedly spent in illegal payments — in one case as much as $500,000 to assist two sisters.

In just a few weeks, families across the country will find out how much their children will receive in financial aid from the colleges where they were legitimately accepted. Immediately after these letters arrive, there will be shock and dismay, because, for many, it won’t be enough. This will send students and their parents into a frenzy over how to persuade the colleges to give them more assistance.

Negotiating for additional financial aid isn’t easy. Colleges are besieged with requests from financially strapped families with equally qualified students. Complain and you’ll be jumping in line with other parents also furious that their children didn’t get generous enough financial-aid packages.

But if you want to plead your case for more money, there’s a way to strengthen your argument, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a leading expert on the college-finance process and publisher and vice president for, which provides information about 529 plans.

For this month’s Color of Money Book Club, I’ve chosen Kantrowitz’s new book, “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.”

Yes, of course, your child is brilliant, played basketball and ranked high in his or her class — or has other similarly impressive items on his or her résumé. However, reiterating such accomplishments isn’t likely to make your case for more money. The appeals process is much more formulaic, Kantrowitz says.

“College financial aid is not like negotiating with a car dealership, where bluff and bluster will get you a bigger, better deal,” Kantrowitz writes. “Negotiation for more financial aid depends on presenting a college financial aid office with documentation of special circumstances that affect the family’s ability to pay.”

And, by the way, better stay away from even using the word “negotiation.” Financial-aid administrators might even find it offensive.

Here’s the reality: Most demands for more money fail — miserably. Although appeals are seldom successful, you have a slightly better chance at private nonprofit schools and high-cost colleges, which often have a policy of providing more aid to needy students.

“Only about 1 percent of students nationwide receive adjustments to their financial-aid awards or packages each year as a result of a professional judgment review,” Kantrowitz writes.

If, however, your financial circumstances have changed, it’s worthwhile to submit an appeal. A number of special circumstances can affect a family’s ability to pay. These include a recent job loss or salary reduction, unusually high child-care expenses, or medical costs not covered by health insurance.

Kantrowitz provides useful suggestions on writing an appeal letter, including the do’s and don’ts. For example, don’t ask for a specific amount of money. Do detail a significant financial hardship.

One thing families can do to make sure they get the most aid is to correctly fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Kantrowitz’s book covers a lot of the common errors made on the FAFSA.

Given the recent admissions scandal, here’s a good tip from Kantrowitz: Avoid paid financial-aid consultants who encourage you to submit inaccurate information on the FAFSA.

And how do you know the person might not be legit? If the consultant argues that he or she shouldn’t sign the FAFSA because it might subject you to more scrutiny.

“Paid preparers are subject to the same penalties for fraud as a family,” Kantrowitz writes. “Refusing to sign the FAFSA can be a red flag of unethical or illegal behavior.”

What I found especially helpful in this book were Kantrowitz’s meticulous explanations of why families might not get adjustments to financial-aid offers. What many families see as unfair might not, in fact, be unjust.

I’m hosting an online chat, “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid,” at noon Eastern time March 28 at Kantrowitz will join me to answer your financial-aid questions.

College can be frighteningly expensive, so it pays to learn all you can about the financial-aid process.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.