How to 'Leverage' Your Aid

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

By + More

Caesar Storlazzi, Yale's director of student financial services, didn't address Caro's case, but he said Yale is sticking to its policy of providing only enough aid to meet each student's proven need. Yale "does not match awards from other schools," he says. However, he adds, "seeing the copy of an award from another school often enables us to review the Yale 'needs analysis' and ask additional questions of the family to help us in reviewing our calculation of the parents' contribution."

Play hardball if you have to. Other aid officers say that while many college officials have philosophical objections to the practice, and often insist publicly they don't respond to competitive pressure, most schools that have money to spend on scholarships do use at least some to lure the best students possible. "There are schools who don't acknowledge they do it—even claim they don't—but do" respond to competition, says David Sheridan, who has worked in the financial aid offices of Columbia University and Stevens Institute of Technology and currently heads enrollment services at a New Jersey community college.

Students who've successfully applied leverage say that even the most stubborn colleges often eventually respond. Rajiv Gokal of Valdosta, Ga., was "too lazy" as a high school senior to apply to the right schools to create some leverage. When he realized midway through his freshman year at New York University that he really couldn't afford to borrow $30,000 a year, his attempts to appeal for more grants were rebuffed. He realized the school didn't have to respond because he had no leverage.

So he filled out transfer applications for seven schools that competed with NYU. Writing new essays and arranging for recommendations ruined his spring break and hurt his grades. But it was worth it. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, one of the nation's top business programs, offered him so much money that he won't have to borrow another penny. As he prepared to leave NYU, a dean offered to match Wharton's offer. But by then, it was too late. "It's pretty awesome that I could work the system really hard to get aid," Gokal says.

Awesome, or, as Archimedes might say, "Eureka!"