Qualifying for Financial Aid: Convincing Colleges You’re Needy

college aid

Spring isn’t just a time for robins to start singing and snow to (finally!) melt. In addition to the landscape waking up and parkas being packed away, March and April are prime college acceptance months for high school seniors. That means in addition to kids – and their parents – stalking the mailman in the hopes he’ll drop off the “big envelope” or refreshing their email in pursuit of an e-acceptance, families are hoping and praying for financial aid.

There are two general ways to defray the cost of college: Merit-based aid which is offered for exceptional grades, test scores, etc., and need-based aid which is based on the student’s income and his parent’s income if the student is a dependent.

Merit-based aid, or scholarships, are tools colleges use to attract high-achieving students. These offers have many moving parts including a child’s GPA, class rank, courses taken in high school, perspective major, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and more. Financial need and income level are not factored into these scholarship offers.

Jose Aguilar, director of Financial Aid at the University of California, Riverside, says most need-based financial aid is largely based on information submitted online on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application. Many schools also require you submit the CSS Financial Aid Profile. There is a $16 fee for each school you send the CSS Profile to; however fee waivers are available for applicants who meet the waiver criteria.

“Institutions that receive FAFSA and, when applicable, CSS, information for admitted students will put together a financial aid package that includes federal, state, and institutional aid,” says Aguilar. That aid package is based on guidelines and regulation set forth by each agency.

“A financial aid officer will ensure students receive aid from these programs if they meet the eligibility criteria,” adds Aguilar.

However, in many instances, a college’s first offer of either type of aid may not be their best offer.

Joe Rojek, director of admissions and financial solutions at Olivet Nazarene University School of Graduate & Continuing Studies in Illinois says some scholarships and most financial aid packages are in fact negotiable, especially if the school is really interested in having a student attend. “It’s always worthwhile to open the lines of communication and discuss your needs and situation with the college to see what flexibility there is.”

The paper trail

The most important tool in your financial aid toolbox is documentation, says Aradhana Mudambi, EdD, an independent college admissions counselor at Mudambi College Admissions Counseling.

“If your child’s merit- or need-based aid package does not come out as favorably as you had expected, it’s time to pull together any documentation you can find that demonstrates that your needs are greater than the college’s estimation,” he says.

For instance, did your income last year as reported on the FAFSA or CSS include a once in a lifetime bonus or a sale of property, anything that will not be repeated? Do you have children in graduate school that you are supporting but you were not able to report on the FAFSA or CSS? Are you providing financial assistance for an elderly relative?

Provide documentation that supports any extenuating circumstances or financial issues you weren’t able to include on the FAFSA and CSS to the financial aid office as soon as possible. Any documentation that shows additional need is acceptable. This includes but is not limited to: health care bills, documentation that shows that a bonus you received is not to be expected the following year, layoff notices, graduate school tuition bills for older children, sale of property, etc.

Also, if another equally ranked school offered more merit- or need- based aid, provide that information to the school of your choice as well. “You may be able to persuade them to up their offer,” says Mudambi.

“If your better offer comes from a school that is ranked less than your target school, the better offer is unlikely to persuade your target school to give you more money,” cautions Mudambi.

Just keep calm.

“I’ve heard many stories of parents who demand a better package. And demanding will seldom get you more money so remember to speak nicely and courteously to the financial aid officer.”

Mudambi says “I/My child really want to attend your school, but…” is a good way to start.

And don’t delay.

“The longer you wait, the more likely the school will run out of money,” says Mudambi. “In fact, if you know that your FAFSA is over estimating your disposable income, mail this documentation to the financial aid office when you submit your FAFSA.”

Don’t wait for the deadline to apply for aid. “The earlier you apply for aid or work to prove you have a need not demonstrated on the standardized forms, the more aid money the financial aid office has to work with,” says Mudambi.

Image: SalFalko 

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Published March 6, 2014 Updated: March 3, 2014
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