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How to negotiate a better financial aid package

Vikaya Powell, 17, right, confers with Patricia Braun, College and Career Specialist, at T. C. Willams High School career center, Friday March 28, 2014. Vikaya and other seniors are hoping scholarships will fill in the gap between their financial aid awards and what they can actually afford to pay, which is not much. They have gotten a lot of help from counselors at school – including Patricia Braun, who runs the college and career center and Greg Forbes, the director of counseling. (photo by Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post).
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Your high school senior is basking in the glow of college acceptance letters. Three or four schools want her to join their class of 2019, and nothing can bring her down, except for the cost.

Unless you’re one of those lucky families whose kid receives a full ride, chances are the scholarships and grants schools offer will fall short of what your child actually needs. And that means you might want to start negotiating.

Many families don’t realize it, but there is often a little wiggle room in financial aid awards. FAFSA, the form the government and colleges use to determine need- and some merit-based aid, doesn’t capture all circumstances that might affect a family’s ability to pay for school. For instance, there’s no line to include the cost of caring for an elderly parent or special needs child, the kind of expenses that could warrant more aid,  said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a college planning Web site. So if you weren’t able to share that kind of information with the school, now is the time to bring it up to see if that shakes free some more assistance.

What’s more, your family finances may have changed since the time you filled out the FAFSA. A job loss or any sort of salary reduction are also the kind of special circumstances that could lead a school to increase a child’s scholarship or grant funding.

If you do decide to negotiate, you can appeal to the school’s financial aid administrator for what’s known as a professional judgment review. Gather up every piece of documentation of any changes to your family finances or special circumstances that could impact your ability to pay for school. If the financial impact is significant enough, the school may adjust your child’s award.

Keep in mind that families can appeal for more financial aid throughout college, not just for freshman year. Even if your financial circumstances change in the middle of the semester, there is still a chance that the school could reassess your need.

Some schools are also willing to adjust their award to match a better offer from another college. The schools would have to be at least equally ranked and your kid would have to be a pretty good student, said Susan Hanflik, an educational consultant.

“Students can say ‘Hey, this school has offered me this, but I’d really like to come to you. Is there any more money?'” she said. “Sometimes there will be and sometimes there won’t, but it is worth asking. Every school wants really good students and they are going to give merit aid to make that happen.”

But don’t head into the financial aid office looking to haggle over pricing, Kantrowitz said.

“Colleges are not car dealerships, where bluff and bluster can get you a better deal. Very few colleges will make a revised financial aid offer when a student gets a more generous financial aid offer from a competitor,” he said.

He added that even when a college will review the financial aid offer from another college, they never get into bidding wars for students. They’re mainly looking for information that they may have overlooked.


How to read a financial aid award letter