Follow 6 Steps to Increase Your Financial Aid

It's worth your time to try to get additional funds from your school.

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What happens when the financial aid package that a student receives from a school is laughably inadequate? Is it possible to extract more money from the university?

That is what a dad, who contacted me this week, was wondering. His son, who hopes to major in engineering, got into a private university but the financial aid award was shockingly low.

[Learn how to compare financial aid award letters.]

The family's Expected Family Contribution is $18,000, which represents the amount of money that the family should be able to afford for their son's first year of college. The cost of attending this university, however, exceeds $40,000.

What kind of help did this family receive from the school's financial aid award? A bunch of loans and a mere $7,500 grant.

When I looked at the financial aid statistics for this school I discovered that stinginess at this university is routine. The average need-based aid award is less than $15,000 and loans are included in that figure. (One way to find financial aid statistics on any school is via the College Board's website. Type in the name of the institution on the site to retrieve its profile and then click on the Cost & Financial Aid hyperlink.)

[Get more tips on how to pay for college.]

It is, however, worth appealing to any school to request more money if the financial aid award is inadequate. Here are some ways to increase your chances of getting additional financial aid from a school:

1. Find out what the school's financial appeal process is: Before contacting the institution, look on the school's website to see if it has posted the procedure for an appeal, suggests Myra Baas Smith, the College Board's executive director of financial aid services. Sometimes you will find an online appeal form that you must complete.

2. Contact the school: The best way to initiate the request is to call the school and explain that you have questions about your financial aid package. Ask for a phone appointment with a financial aid officer.

[See how schools estimate your need for financial aid.]

3. Have a conversation: When you do get the opportunity to make your case to a financial aid officer, avoid asking for a specific amount or treating the phone call as a negotiation. "If you approach it as a conversation, it's much easier for the aid person to get a better sense of your family and what your real needs are," Smith says.

4. Consider following up with an E-mail: Offer to E-mail a one-page letter that includes the highlights of your family's situation after the conversation, suggest Kevin Walker, president and CEO of SimpleTuition, which provides online financial aid advice to families.

5. Show other offers: If your teenager has received more generous aid offers, mention that to the school in a diplomatic way. If the school really wants your child, this may result in a higher award. On its website, for instance, Carnegie Mellon University comes right out and says: "We are open to negotiating financial awards to compete with other institutions." Be prepared to provide copies of these other offers to the school.

6. Understand when an appeal will be more effective: Private colleges, Walker says, are typically in a better position to adjust an award letter than a state institution. And flagships are more likely to have endowments that can generate institutional grants for students than regional state schools. At many public institutions, the financial aid comes from federal money and state aid programs, which means there is little wiggle room for extra money.