The complete guide to a better financial aid offer
How do you close the gap between what you can afford, and what the college wants you to pay? In a word: negotiation. That doesn’t mean playing hardball or being manipulative. It does mean picking up the phone, and having a frank, open and honest discussion with your financial aid officer. Be prepared to state your case clearly, persuasively and politely.
The tips below represent years of hard won experience. Use them to help negotiate a better financial aid offer. And be nice! Remember, financial aid officers are people, too.
1. Explain why the student loves that particular college.
Be specific. Explain what the college offers that makes it such a great fit with the needs of your student. We all want to feel loved. Your case is always much stronger if the administrator hears how much the student wants to attend.
Telling the college that you got a better offer from another college can sometimes backfire. Mentioning a better offer might put pressure on the college to “up the ante.” But the administrator just might say, “Well, you should go to the other college then.” Instead, you may want to take the approach of gently mentioning the better offer from the other college, but emphasize that this college is the one where the student would really like to go, and ask how you can work with them to make that possible.
2. Explain why you can’t pay the suggested amount.
Again, be specific here. And don’t fudge the truth. Administrators can detect sincerity right away, so it pays to be honest here.
3. Mention any special conditions that affect your capacity to pay for college.
For example, if the student worked before starting college but understandably cannot work while in college, then you can report a “loss of income.” Similarly, if a parent’s earned income will be less in than what was reported for the prior year, you can report a “loss of income” here as well. Under such special conditions, once the student is admitted, contact the financial aid office and explain that the income earned in the prior year is largely irrelevant, since it will no longer represent a realistic standard on which to base for your ability to pay for college.
Other examples of special conditions include loss of job, reduction of income, unexpected expenses, natural disasters, separation or divorce, etc.
Negotiate with financial aid administrators only
Don’t negotiate with anyone other than a financial aid administrator. They are the only ones who can make a decision in your case. Secretaries and aides in financial aid offices are sometimes hired for their ability to say “no” with a particular level of conviction. If you need to practice your negotiation skills feel free to practice on a secretary. Just don’t expect any immediate, affirmative outcomes from such practice.
Share your appreciation of the complexity of the financial aid administrator’s job
Let the financial aid administrator know that you understand and appreciate how difficult his/her job really is. If they know that you are not trying to merely take advantage of them, they are more likely to respond to your needs.
Heroes are often hard to find these days but one thing is clear. If you are looking for true heroes, you will find them working in college financial aid offices across the nation. Day in, day out, perceptive, hard-working financial aid professionals make college degrees possible for deserving students. More than any other player in the college system, financial aid administrators are the architects of opportunity for our young people. We urge that you treat them with the respect they deserve.
Always send a hand-written note of thanks
If the financial aid administrator does anything that encourages you or that indicates he or she is willing to work with you, take the time to send the person a short, hand-written “thank you” note. Financial aid administrators rarely get these so they will appreciate your thoughtfulness. Eventually, they may even learn to associate your student’s social security number with your personal warmth. In the note, you should chronicle for the record any good news from the financial aid person in the event they forget. It pays to create an audit trail on good news and let bad news get lost in the overworked memory bank of the financial aid office.
Don’t forget to share your good news with people in high places. If a financial aid officer does something wonderful for you, send a letter to the college president praising the professionalism of that financial aid officer. The president is likely to send a congratulatory note along with a copy of your letter to the financial aid administrator, which may ensure continued good behavior on your behalf by that person for the duration of your student’s entire college career.