College financial aid offices often seem like white-columned fortresses, hugely valuable but completely inaccessible to average families struggling to understand the financial aid landscape.
In reality, though, financial aid officers and admissions officers exist to be a free resource to students and parents alike. Here’s how to tap into all that free knowledge, and make sure you’re getting all the financial aid available to you.
How to Contact Your Financial Aid or Admissions Office
First, find your admissions counselor, who will be your point of contact for all merit-based aid. Most colleges assign their admissions counselors to students by region, state, or school district. Often, you can look up your area’s admissions counselor on the admissions staff web page. No luck? Call the general number for the admissions office and ask for the officer for your hometown.
If you want to learn about need-based aid, contact the financial aid office. Many financial aid offices assign financial aid officers alphabetically by the first letters of students’ last names. If that’s the case, you’ll often be able to find the officer assigned to you online. If you can’t figure it out, don’t worry—you’ll be assigned an officer when you’re accepted. In the meantime, call the general contact number for the financial aid office.
What to Ask Before You Apply
Before you draft your college list, make sure the schools you’re applying to offer the kind of aid you’ll need to attend. Use these questions to figure out what schools might be feasible options:
Does your school offer merit scholarships?
About 75% of all scholarships come from colleges, rather than private organizations, says Susan Zinanti of Colorado-based Stepwise College Consulting. (She would know: She got her start working in admissions for St. John’s College and the University of Denver before becoming a private consultant.) That means that if your family is relying on merit-based versus need-based aid, prioritize chasing institutional scholarships rather than piecing together smaller private grants.
However, not all institutions offer merit-based aid, so do your research and make sure you’re applying to the ones that do. Zinanti also recommends asking the admissions office what the profile of a typical scholarship recipient looks like. After all, colleges primarily think of scholarships as a recruitment tool.
“To increase your chances that that incentive will be offered to you, make sure that you’re applying to schools where you’re a strong applicant that they’re going to want to attract,” Zinanti says.
Be sure to ask whether there are additional forms or special deadlines for applying to things like honors programs or merit-based scholarships. Most schools generate merit-based scholarship offers automatically after reviewing your general application, but some schools require a little extra legwork.
Is your net-price calculator up to date?
While all colleges are required to supply a net-price calculator on their website, some calculators are more robust than others. If you’re relying on that number to make your application decisions, double-check that the calculator has been recently updated, Zinanti recommends.
What percent of students receive need-based aid, and what percent of need do you meet on average?
“The reality is that most colleges can’t meet 100% of need,” Zinanti says. Some are very generous with need-based scholarships. Others save their money for merit-based scholarships, which they use to entice preferred students to enroll. Ask about the aid breakdown upfront to give you a sense of how generous a school is likely to be in meeting your family’s needs.
How are outside scholarships handled?
Before you apply for private scholarships, get a sense of how your top schools will factor them into your aid package. Sometimes colleges apply that money against institutional grants, reducing your overall financial aid package. In other cases, the school might be willing to apply that money to the gap between your need and their ability to meet it, Zinanti says.
Besides automatic merit scholarships, what other institutional opportunities might be available?
Your financial aid officer will know whether the school offers community service-, leadership-, or talent-based scholarships in addition to awards based on academic performance. “Sometimes there’s a lot of money left on the table because students don’t know to look for it,” says Zinanti. Make sure you understand how to apply for these, and whether any extra forms or deadlines are required.
What to Ask After You Get Your Aid Package
The time period between getting your financial aid package and committing to a school is critical. To make sure you have all the information you need to make the right decision, ask your admissions officer or financial aid officer these questions.
How much has tuition increased in recent years?
“Tuition tends to go up every year,” says Shannon Vasconcelos, a former college financial aid officer for Tufts and Boston University. She’s now the director of college finance for education advising firm Bright Horizons College Coach. “If your family can barely afford that first year of tuition, any further increases might be a dealbreaker.” Ask about past trends to get an idea of how much the tuition might continue to increase.
If the officer expects tuition to rise significantly, make sure to ask whether your award will increase along with it.
Can I expect my award to remain the same all four years?
If your financial status stays the same, your need-based aid probably will, too. But if your family’s situation changes during your time in school—say, a parent loses a job, or your college-age older sibling graduates—then your eligibility may change. It’s up to the financial aid office to determine how to adjust your aid. “Sometimes, the school might not be able to meet your new needs,” Vasconcelos says. That’s worth knowing up front.
Make sure you know exactly what GPA you need to maintain to keep your merit-based award. Also, double-check whether that money will dry up if you take an extra semester or two to finish your degree.
Would you be willing to consider special financial circumstances?
Oftentimes, schools will offer a student what they feel is the minimum reasonable amount, expecting the family to negotiate for more money if the original offer isn’t enough, says Vasconcelos. It’s always good practice to ask for more aid—as long as it’s before you send in your deposit. “Otherwise, you’ve lost nearly all your leverage,” Vasconcelos says.
To submit an appeal for need-based aid, use the appeal form on the financial aid office website. If there isn’t one, Vasconcelos recommends sending an email to your financial aid officer stating that your family’s financial situation has changed since the FAFSA base year. If a parent lost a job, incurred undue medical expenses, or experienced other financial hardship in the past year or so, send a note along with documentation of the event, and ask that your family be reconsidered for need-based aid. Do this right away, as it sometimes takes several weeks to process appeals.
Is there anything you can do to increase my merit-based award?
You can also ask for more merit-based aid. As other students make their decisions and turn down offers, sometimes more scholarship money becomes available for financial aid officers to pull from.
“You won’t always be successful, but families are often surprised by how often colleges say yes,” says Vasconcelos. She encourages students to email their admissions officer with proof of competing offers from similar schools and ask if the college can offer more to close the gap.
Zinanti also encourages prospective students to send documentation of increased grade-point average as another bargaining tool. Regardless of your argument, though, the email should emphasize how excited the student is to attend if becomes financially possible. Keep the tone earnest and hopeful, rather than indignant or entitled: “At the end of the day, a college is a business with a budget,” Zinanti cautions. “And financial aid officers are trying their best to help a lot of different students with different levels of need.”
What else can I do to mitigate the cost of tuition?
If your student knows what major they’re planning on pursuing, they can also ask if there are any department-specific scholarships available. However, Vasconcelos cautions that departmental scholarships, like any scholarships offered post-enrollment, tend to be small. “Once your student has already enrolled, colleges have very little incentive to offer more money,” she says.
Your financial aid officer will also be able to point you to the correct on-campus offices to look for resident advisor jobs or other on-campus work opportunities to help your student cover the costs of room and board. If your student can handle the workload, they may also be able to take a few extra classes each semester at no extra cost, allowing them to graduate a semester or two early.
Finally, if there’s a way for your student to gain in-state tuition, financial aid officers might have some insight.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.