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A helpful family guide to college financing

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: May 2, 2005

Congratulations, you’ve been accepted! Millions of high school seniors are hoping to find a nice fat envelope in the mailbox, and a letter telling them they’ve been accepted to the school of their choice, and to please fill out the enclosed enrollment forms.

But that’s only the first important letter for many students. They’ll be waiting for a second communication: a letter from the school’s financial aid office, telling them how much support -- and in what form -- they have been given to help pay for that expensive first year of school.

What a sad situation it is when a student realizes that the family simply doesn’t have enough money, and the aid offer is inadequate, to cover the costs. But that first letter doesn’t have to be the end of your dreams. Reecy Aresty, author of Getting Into College and Paying for It! says, “Everything is negotiable in the college funding game.”

Securing financial aid

So let’s go back to the start of the aid process, and see what your family can do now to turn your college dreams into reality.

It all started in January, when you submitted the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form to the College Board. (Some Ivy League or private schools also require a similar CSS form be submitted.) The information on the FAFSA form is used by the government to create the SAR (Student Aid Report) that tells the family what their EFC (expected family contribution) will be.

This information is forwarded automatically to the colleges when you apply, and indicates you are seeking financial aid.

The college acceptance process actually consists of two separate portions.

The first is the decision to admit you, which might be based on test scores, grades, letters of recommendation and on the application itself, including essays. The second part is the decision by the school’s financial aid office on how much aid to offer and in what form. Aid could be in the form of an outright grant, a scholarship, a tuition waiver, work-study programs or a federal student loan.

But the aid package might not provide enough assistance to close the gap between the cost of school and what your family can afford. Each school makes its own decision about the amount and type of aid to offer.

If the school of your choice doesn’t offer enough, Aresty has some strategies to help you plead for more help.

“Even if the school doesn’t offer you anything -- or enough -- you can still appeal their financial aid offer, and ask for more assistance,” Aresty says. “Everything is negotiable when it comes to financial aid, but you have to know how to properly appeal.”

You can buy his book for $31, including shipping, at And in that book, you’ll find advice, and some sample appeal letters.

Aresty suggests you write directly to the person who signed the financial aid letter on behalf of the school. Or if no individual is named, address it to the director of financial aid.

Consider the tone of your letter carefully. One suggestion involves a subtle guilt trip: “Dear Sir: Based on my research the U. of X. has a proud tradition of meeting students’ financial need. Please continue that tradition by helping me make up the difference between what you’ve offered and what my family and I can afford.”

Then there’s always the possibility of subtle threat combined with flattery in your plea: “I’ve been offered substantially more at another school, but you’ve always been my first choice and I hate to miss out on being a member of the class of 2009.”

Be specific

Aresty also suggests you make your request specific. If you’ve been offered less than the freshman year limit of $2,625 in federal Stafford Loans, you might request an increase, and that it be made a subsidized loan, relieving you of the interest burden while you’re in school.

And he suggests you should ask for a work-study award of no less than $2,500 to demonstrate your willingness to take an active part in paying for your own education.

In one case, the school provided an extra $500 in grant money because Aresty pointed out that the student was coming from a warm climate to a Northern university and would need cold-weather clothes.

So don’t despair if you have an acceptance letter, but not enough financial aid. Aresty says if you plead your case properly, you could increase your financial aid by thousands of dollars. That’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser, and appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s newscasts. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.

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