Unigo Expert Network: When Financial Aid Just Isn't Enough, What Can You Do?

Financial aid can be a foreign language to many of us. When it comes back, is it final? Can you ask for more? What if your parents lose their job since you applied? Hear from the experts on what to do if your financial aid package isn't quite enough for you and your family.

This week's question asks:

"I'm worried that my financial aid package won't be sufficient for me and my family to cover my college costs. Can I negotiate with schools to increase my package?"

To have your questions answered visit www.unigo.com/expertnetwork

Myra Smith
"Yes! You need to contact each school's financial aid office"
The amount of financial aid you will receive is determined in large part on prior year income. 
, like a parent getting laid off, you should inform the financial aid office immediately, providing as much detail as possible.  These cases are quite common and schools have discretion to make adjustments to the aid offered based on the severity of the change and their institutional resources.   Refer to each college's web site to see if they have particular instructions on how to submit new information and be prepared to include documentation such as recent pay stubs, layoff notices, unemployment compensation or severance pay expected.  

- Myra Smith - Executive Director of Financial Aid Services, The College Board

Roby Blust
"Schools will negotiate to the extent that they can"
Many schools offer their best financial aid package right up front.  These schools are not in a position to negotiate but most, if not all, are willing to review an award if the family has special circumstances (job loss, high medical/dental bill not covered by insurance or elementary/secondary tuition).  If someone wants to pursue special circumstances, they need to provide documentation of the situation - bills, layoff notices, unemployment, severance packages and signed federal tax returns.  These discussions should occur with each school the student is interested in directly.  Schools can also help you secure alternative forms of funding as well.  Start with the Financial Aid Office.

- Roby Blust - Dean of Admissions & Enrollment Planning, Marquette University

Pam Proctor
"Documentation is key in a good negotiation, have yours ready"
Policies differ from school to school. At some colleges, students can request a Professional Judgment Appeal form, which the financial aid office will use to update your file. Expect to provide documentation, such as proof of unemployment, to prove your case. At other schools, a personal appeal by phone to a financial aid officer could start the review process. Still other colleges won't make any changes immediately: your first-semester financial aid will be based strictly on 2010 tax-year information. In any case, e-mail or FAX a letter detailing your financial situation and call the financial aid office.

- Pam Proctor - Author, The College Hook

Tony Bankston
"Stop using the word 'negotiate,' this isn't 'Let's Make a Deal!'"
The first key is to get the word "negotiate" out of your vocabulary. Most financial aid officers will rankle at the mere mention of the word. Need-based financial assistance isn't about "Let's Make a Deal;" it's about colleges trying to utilize limited resources as best as possible to put a college education in reach for a variety of families in different financial circumstances. Different colleges will cost different amounts. That is the reality of the marketplace. If you have extenuating circumstances that you believe are negatively impacting your ability to finance your education, you simply need to open up a dialogue with financial aid representatives at each of the colleges you are considering and make sure they have all the additional information they need to make a financial aid assessment. In the end, most colleges will attempt to do the best they can, but you need to remember that they are working with hundreds, in some cases thousands, of other families who are also very concerned about their cost to attend college. In the end, they need to be equitable in how they treat each family.

- Tony Bankston - Dean of Admissions, Wesleyan University

Craig Meister
"The inside scoop on financial aid offices"
Increasingly, top colleges are directing their aid dollars towards increasing access and affordability to their institutions, while less selective colleges use a good portion of their aid dollars towards recruiting students for reasons other than families' lack of funds.  In these cases, telling your first-choice college about the aid other colleges offered you might yield a bit more merit-based aid. Yet, if there have been no major changes to a family's financial situation since first applying for aid, don't bet on getting more money from a college. Always check before applying for awards from third party organizations because these
often reduce the amount of money a college will ultimately award you.

- Craig Meister - President, Tactical College Consulting

Don't miss more answers to this question from the Dean of Admissions at University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan, and more at www.unigo.com/expertnetwork

Let us know if you've ever negotiated for more financial aid, how it went, and if you were successful. Did you have to say no to your first choice college because you couldn't afford it?