Run the Numbers
A few simple steps and some tough questions can help families tackle the cost of college
One of the most effective ways to get more aid is to call, write, or, best of all, visit the aid offices of the student's top-choice school. Students who can supply good reasons and evidence for needing more money can ask for a "professional judgment review" of their award. Job loss or unusual but necessary costs such as hospital or funeral bills are the kinds of factors that tend to win the most additional aid, officers say. Unwillingness to divert money from payments on the Hummer or beachfront vacation home typically won't win sympathy or money. Students or parents who have low-balled their income or savings on financial aid applications should not appeal. Officials taking a harder look at a family's finances can-and sometimes do-reduce aid.
A growing number of schools are also receptive to appeals based on offers from competing schools. Some universities, such as Carnegie Mellon and Harvard, encourage students to give them a chance to match other colleges' awards. (They may not respond to offers from schools they don't compete with, however.) Other schools prefer to be approached more diplomatically.
It took Janean Laidlaw of Williamstown, Mass., five hours of scouring through websites and college catalogs to figure out the real costs of the eight schools her son, Hal, got into in 2003. And then she discovered that Hal's top choice, Swarthmore, would cost the family $16,000, or as much as 22 percent of the family's after-tax income, and was thousands of dollars higher than his other choices. So she wrote a letter noting that other schools had been more generous, wondering if those schools "had looked at us differently," and explaining it would be difficult for the family to live on three-quarters pay. After an initial rejection, Swarthmore offered to replace Hal's loans with grants. Though sorely tempted, in the end, Hal chose to study math and computer science at Princeton, a less expensive option. Now a senior, Hal is being recruited by tech companies, and the Laidlaws' oldest daughter just received a nice offer from Columbia. "We're very lucky," Laidlaw says. Of course, the Laidlaws also put in the effort to increase the odds that financial aid luck would favor them.
Considering Aid Offers?
--Find out the college's total cost of attendance.
--Deduct grants and scholarships to calculate your out-of-pocket cost.
--Determine what the requirements are to have a scholarship renewed for subsequent years.
--Figure out how long it's likely to take to get a degree. Most students now need at least five years.
--Weigh the savings from living at home for two years and going to community college vs. the chance that you won't transfer to a four-year school.
--Decide how many hours a week you could work at a job without hurting your grades.
--Look for last-minute scholarships with late deadlines.
--Appeal to the college financial aid office for a better deal if your family has evidence of greater need.
If You're Running Behind...
It's not too late to apply for college scholarships. U.S. News has compiled a list of eight scholarship programs suitable for last-minute applicants, with deadlines ranging from April 30 through September 17 and awards of $300 to $10,000. Most require an essay: Questions include "What is the future of the printed book?" and "If you could trade places with someone for 24 hours, who would it be and why?" The list is available at usnews.com/lastminute.