Satisfied with Financial Aid?
The Charlotte Observer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

By April Bethea

For many families of would-be college students, the financial aid offers that will arrive in mailboxes this month aren't final.

Think of them as opening offers. Schools can, and often do, end up offering more if it means getting the student to come there.

In most cases, aid appeals are for special cases, such as income loss.

However, about 2 percent of schools polled in 2001 said they'll change their original offer to compete with what another school is promising a student.

Some financial aid staff and experts caution families not to play "let's make a deal" with colleges. But others say it doesn't hurt to ask for more money.

"The worst that the university can say is `no,' " said Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington-based college admissions consultant.

Goodman said the more the university wants a student, the better the chances it will reconsider its original aid offer. He said colleges have more incentive to compete with schools "as good or quote unquote better than that institution."

The Web site for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh said the university is open to negotiating aid packages for some students.

About half the reviews result in more financial aid, said Bill Elliott, the school's vice president for enrollment. "We try to make it so students don't have to make a decision based on money but based on where they want to go," he said.

Some colleges will say no

Negotiating for aid isn't new. But the process has been encouraged more in recent years by some college consultants, said Robert Muhammad, associate director of scholarships and grants at UNC Charlotte. Muhammad said some schools, like those with large endowments, could afford to give students more money, but many state schools don't have that option.

"The only limitless amount of money we have to offer are federal Pell grants or loans," he said. "All other monies have caps and limits and you're trying to serve as many students as possible."

Like UNC Charlotte, Queens University of Charlotte doesn't negotiate.

"If one family picks up the phone and asks for more money and the other didn't, it's not fair to award that family that made the call and not the one who didn't," said Eileen Dills, associate vice president for student financial services.

`Professional judgment'

Still, nearly all schools use a federal policy called "professional judgment" that can lead to more money.

Under that, the college's aid administrator considers more detailed information about a family's income, assets and expenses than what is asked for on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the form that determines federal aid.

The new information is used to recalculate how much the family is expected to contribute toward college costs. If the figure is reduced, more aid can be offered.

But the law is specific on what can be considered in the appeal. Lost income or uncovered medical expenses? Yes.

A spike in country club membership fees or other discretionary costs? No dice.

Any appeal decision by the college aid administrator is final.

Need to appeal?

Financial aid counselors and other consultants offer these tips for appealing your aid package:

  • Bring documentation, such as bills or an unemployment check.

  • Don't lie about your finances, or your plan to attend a school under a better offer. "If they think you're trying to game the system, they're not going to make the adjustments," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.org.

  • Be polite. "Please and thank you," said Goodman, "go a long way in this process."
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