Is there such a thing as negotiating your financial aid award package? Yes and no. No in the sense that your school’s financial aid office is not like a car dealership with a dean of admissions in the back room who will give you the manager’s Wednesday special. Yes in that if you can prove beyond question that your financial need and circumstances are greater than what’s provided via the usual financial aid paperwork like the FAFSA, schools can be flexible.
Before we get started, I recommend strongly reading this article on StudentLoanNetwork.com about how to read a financial aid award letter
.Get Your Budget In Order
If you don’t use any kind of personal finance software, be it a desktop application like Quicken or a web-based application like Wesabe, Mint, or Geezeo, I strongly recommend starting with one. The web-based applications are free, so if you’re trying to save money from every angle, start with one of those.
Start by importing any electronic records of your finances and your family’s finances for at least 90 days. You’ll want to take the time to categorize your expenses in terms of mandatory and discretionary, followed by breaking them out into individual categories, like mortgage or rent, utilities, etc.
Once you’ve got your budget broken out, you’ll want to compare it against your award letter, especially looking at what kind of discretionary income you have compared to the expected family contribution, or out of pocket expenses. If your EFC from your award letter divided by 12 (for what’s essentially a monthly EFC) is greater than your discretionary expenses budget (dining out, entertainment, etc.) then you’ve got a good starting point for a conversation about what you can and cannot afford.Get All Your Paperwork Together
If you’re going to be asking for more financial aid based on changed economic circumstances, have ample paperwork available to back up your claims and requests. Did someone lose a job in the family? Have termination notices, unemployment insurance, or other papers ready. Did your income change? Use any of the budgeting software described above to graphically illustrate your monthly cash flow, along with things like pay stubs, tax returns, etc.Know What To Ask For
It’s not enough to ask for more money. That’s way too generic. Ask for specific amounts, ask for specific assistance, and try to know some of the different types of things financial aid administrators are permitted to do. Financial aid administrators are permitted to make professional judgement overrides on:
- dependency. If you can prove that you are an independent student due to the involuntary dissolution of your family (i.e. parents in jail, social services removed you from the home due to abuse, etc.) a financial aid administrator can override the dependency requirements for undergraduate students, letting you complete the FAFSA and other financial aid paperwork without parental income information.
- future earnings and income. If you can prove that you or your family has had a significant change in income that impacts your ability to pay for college, a financial aid administrator can grant you more assistance. Be prepared with termination notices, tax returns, and every scrap of paper you can find to make your case.Updated April 2, 2009: The Department of Education has offered additional guidance for this scenario. See this post at FinancialAidNews.com about the changes.
- cost of attendance. If you can prove that expenses in your student budget (transportation, medical, disability, dependents, and a few other select cases) do not reflect your situation, a financial aid administrator can alter your student budget, allowing for additional aid. If you pursue this override, again, be prepared to document every step of the way to show why, for example, traveling to and from your school requires a transportation budget greater than allotted.
- special circumstances. In some cases, parents divorce during the financial aid award year, but the FAFSA cannot be changed to reflect the divorce. With appropriate court documentation noting the dissolution of the marriage, a student can ask for a special circumstances override that will let them use the income of the custodial parent.
There are other, more narrow circumstances that apply as well. If you don’t know what to ask for, haul as much documentation to your financial aid administrator as possible so that they have as complete a picture of your finances as possible.Be Polite
The single thing that will do the most good or harm in getting additional aid is how you approach the financial aid office. The best time to approach them is before you need their help, as is the case with virtually all professional networking. Stop by from time to time casually, and say hello. Ask if there are any new scholarships that have been posted. Check in. If you find a scholarship that you’re not eligible for but other students at your school might be, let someone in the office know about it so it can be posted in the office. If you want a real education in financial aid, apply for a work study job in the financial aid office.
If you know your parents are, shall we say, less than diplomatic, then try to mediate any discussions with the financial aid office so that overly aggressive or insistent requests don’t harm your chances of getting help.