How to 'Leverage' Your Aid

You can get more dough by pitting schools against one another.

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With sticker prices of $100,000 for a degree at a public university and as much as $200,000 at the toniest private schools, it may seem that college's financial burden is simply too heavy.

But a growing number of students are applying a basic principle of Physics 101—Archimedes's power of leverage—to raise college cash.

The lever: colleges' competition for good students. "It's not a secret to anybody that universities compete fiercely over admitted students. It makes sense for students to use that leverage," says Phoebe Rounds, who set off enough competition over herself to win a generous scholarship to Yale. Rounds went on to help form a student group that is training high schoolers to put themselves up on the financial aid equivalent of eBay. They try to apply to enough competing, generous colleges to get at least one school to bid up their scholarships.

Applying leverage isn't easy. It takes early planning, hard work, skillful negotiating, and, sometimes, tough decisions. It also takes a willingness to fail and the courage to stand up to aid officers. Leveragers don't always win. Fully half of all college students don't get any kind of free money for college. And some end up angering financial aid officers, many of whom say they don't want to encourage a strategy that ends up rewarding wealthier families better at working the system.

But those students who don't take advantage of colleges' competition over applicants say they've learned the hard way that simply trusting that the needed aid will magically arrive is likely to end in disappointment. So here's how to leverage your way to big financial aid packages:

Study, lead, and excel. Successful leveragers say they started out by following the same eat-your-spinach advice that all students should be following anyway. Study hard. Get good grades. Try your best on tests. Develop a special talent or skill you're passionate about—playing the harmonica, throwing the javelin, tutoring kindergartners—that will set you apart from the crowd.

What's new is that students who've rolled their eyes at such nagging in the past may finally pay attention now that big dollar signs are attached. The federal government's Academic Competitiveness and smart grants, for example, give up to $4,000 a year to needy students who maintain a 3.0 grade-point average and study certain sciences or foreign languages. States such as Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee give big scholarships to any local high schoolers with 3.0s in their core classes.

And a growing number of colleges are now saying publicly what has long been one of the worst-kept secrets of financial aid: The better the student, the bigger the school scholarship, no matter what the financial need. Howard University's website, for example, announces that the Washington, D.C., college hands hundreds of first-come-first-served full-tuition scholarships (worth $14,000 a year) to students with GPAs of 3.0 and SATs of at least 1170. Slightly better grades and scores win at least $3,500 more. At the top, students with 3.75 GPAs and 1500 SATs can get all their costs covered, plus free laptops and $950 for books.

Brian Meegan, a college counselor at Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, says inducements like those can persuade teens to buckle down, study, and retake college tests. "I ask them: 'How much do you make an hour: $5? $10? Take this test again, and you might earn $5,000. Is that worth your time?'"

Apply often but not too early. Meegan and other counselors warn that students who want to maximize their aid shouldn't succumb to the temptation of applying early or to just one college. Research shows that students who apply to several colleges get significantly more aid than similarly qualified students who apply to only one. And to leverage effectively, it pays to have several offers to compare in the spring.

To increase their leverage, students should spend the fall of their senior year researching two or more dream schools. They should also try to find at least three schools they like, where they're likely to get in, and that have low costs or generous aid. Counselors generally recommend that students make sure to apply to at least one in-state public university to provide a low-cost option. But students shouldn't bother with any potential financial safety school—no matter how cheap—where they doubt they'll fit in, for either academic or social reasons. Since college dropouts earn about 45 percent less than college graduates, it is worth a few thousand dollars extra to make sure the student graduates.