How not to blow it on financial aid

Types of financial aid

There’s a great article today’s Wall Street Journal about “How Not To Blow It With Financial Aid” (subscription required).  The article gives lots of tips including how to apply for financial aid even if you think your family earns too much to qualify.  It closes with two really great mistakes parents usually make about financial aid:

Thinking an aid offer is set in stone.

In many cases, colleges will increase your aid package if you appeal it. But you’ll have to know what information to put forward to convince them.

If your family has financial constraints that don’t show up on the FAFSA—the form doesn’t ask about things like high medical bills or support for a special-needs child—you should send financial documents that attest to this. Send similar documents if you’ve had a big financial change since your base income year.

Colleges may also boost your aid package if you tactfully show them that directly competing colleges are offering you a better aid package. At many schools, “they’re figuring out the minimum amount of aid they need to give you to get you to come,” says Kalman A. Chany, a New York City-based consultant who helps families maximize their financial-aid packages.

Send the aid office the award letters from the other colleges and reiterate your child’s interest in their school. Even at need-only institutions, you may land a better package, says Mr. Weinerman. “There’s a lot of art in need-based financial aid,” he says.


Figuring aid will be about the same all four years.

Once your child’s freshman aid package is set, remember that you’ll have to go through the process again with a new FAFSA each subsequent year, and that the results may well be different, even if your financial picture doesn’t change in your new base income year.

Many colleges these days practice “frontloading,” where they offer students more money freshman year than in later years to get them in the door. The typical student at a four-year public or private nonprofit college will get around $1,400 less in grants and scholarships their sophomore year, according to an analysis of aid data done by Mr. Kantrowitz.

If their financial situation stays the same, there’s little families can do to prevent this drop-off in grant aid, says Mr. Kantrowitz.

One more thing to bear in mind: Even if your child didn’t receive any aid in the first year of college, keep applying in subsequent years. If you have a change in your family situation—say, another child goes off to college or your family income goes down—you could become eligible for aid.Still, a college’s financial-aid office may be forthright about frontloading if you ask, he says. Once you know you’ll likely get less aid, you can start saving to cover the shortfall.