College price tags vary, but consider aid before crossing a school off your list.

Clinch a Great Financial Aid Package

Know how colleges calculate need, and then speak up.

College price tags vary, but consider aid before crossing a school off your list.
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As you prepare to make your case to colleges, experts suggest following these tips:

1. Get your data in order: Read through the FAFSA and CSS Profile fine print and ask questions so you know what is required when filling out the paperwork. For example, correctly identifying eligible income exemptions could mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars in aid.

Consider the case of a couple who recently approached Fabriquer with $150,000 in loans from their son's schooling at Stanford University. The family income was only about $60,000 per year, but the small business owners had mistakenly listed their business assets on the FAFSA.

Business owners with fewer than 100 employees don't have to report such assets. It wasn't until after their son had graduated that they realized they would have qualified for need-based grants had they filled out the FAFSA properly. "They should have gotten a free ride," Fabriquer says.

[Follow 7 tips to avoid FAFSA errors.]

2. Contact colleges early: Don't assume that the school knows about all the aberrations in your family's finances. Has a family member gotten sick, diminishing saving accounts? Did an inheritance inflate last year's income? Tell the college or university you've applied to, even before you've been accepted. The sooner schools know, the better.

3. Beat the deadlines: Don't wait until the last minute to contact the college or university and plead your case, says Rod Oto, associate dean of admissions and director of student financial services at Carleton College. Oto says his office gets as many as 20 calls or E-mails daily right before the May 1 decision deadline, overloading his four-person staff responsible for reviewing each applicant's situation.

"You're better off starting the conversation earlier, because it might not be just one conversation you're going to have," Oto says. Furthermore, there are limited funds available, so if you don't get in early, the money could be promised to someone else.

4. Understand the formula: Many universities include extraneous expenses in their cost of attendance calculations, but they're not always easy to find. Tulane University, for example, is one school that does provide cost estimates for books, room, board, transportation, and miscellaneous items on its website. Do your homework to find out whether colleges have omitted or underestimated these extra costs.

[Use a net price calculator to get the real cost of college.]

5. Evaluate each piece: It's important to educate yourself on what is being given free and what you might be required to pay back later. Some grants may be provided for only one year, others for more. Also, check to see if merit scholarships are tied to maintaining a minimum GPA or a spot on a sports team. "Asking about what the aid package looks like in future years is important," says GW's Baum.

6. Be prepared to appeal: Brian Henson nabbed acceptance letters for fall 2011 from California Polytechnic State University—San Luis Obispo, the University of Texas—Austin, and the University of San Diego. But his father was laid off from his job in November 2010, dramatically affecting the family's income. Each school had offered Henson aid packages that were light on grants and heavy on loans. He honed in on Cal Poly, with a cost of attendance of about $22,000, and UT—Austin, with a price tag for out-of-staters at about $47,000.

A few weeks before the decision deadline, Brian's mother contacted both schools to plead for more grant money. "At first, with Texas it looked promising, as they said they could accommodate us and offer the whole amount" in grants, she says. "But then they came back ... and said they couldn't because there wasn't any money left."

Brian ultimately chose Cal Poly. But had the Hensons contacted admissions officials at Texas sooner, they might have been able to obtain more grant money. Colleges often have funds to offer to students with extenuating circumstances like Brian's, whose dad is again employed.

7. Go right to the top: Not satisfied with the answers you're getting from an aid representative? Ask to speak with the director of financial aid. "Most of us are open to it and happy to talk to students and parents," Carleton's Oto says. Still, he adds, "Most financial aid offices are equipped to handle most requests. Whom you talk to doesn't matter as much as whether you have a strong case."