Stern Advice: How to haggle for that college money

Wed Mar 28, 2012 4:53pm EDT
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By Linda Stern

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Over the next week, most colleges will give high school seniors the good news -- who got in where -- and the bad news -- how much it will cost.

Then it will be crunch time for a full month, as parents try to make the numbers work so their kids can give colleges their final answers by May 1.

Parents will check bank balances and sofa cushions for the cash to make it happen. Financial aid officers will steel themselves for the calls they know are coming, as parents appeal for bigger and better awards. "This is the month of negotiating," says Bob Ilukowicz, a financial aid consultant in Smithtown, New York.

There certainly is aid out there. Ilukowicz says he is seeing his clients get fatter offers for the 2012-2013 school year than he saw in recent years. The College Board estimates that the average private nonprofit four-year college charges $38,590 for tuition, fees, room and board in the 2011-2012 school year, but that grants and federal tax breaks (which it now counts as "aid") shave about $15,530 off that.

Almost 80 percent of full-time undergraduates get some kind of aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and roughly 64 percent get the good kind -- grants that don't have to be paid back.

But burdensome student loans still make up about half of all financial aid, and with tuition alone over $40,000 at more than 100 pricey schools("obscene," says Ilukowicz), how much aid is ever enough? And how can you get it? Here are a few strategies for "haggle month," and beyond.

Ask for more. Roughly two-thirds of parents who appeal their Amherst College aid awards get more money, admits Joe Paul Case, the school's financial aid administrator. And Amherst is a school that doesn't offer merit aid or meet competitive offers just to win over a student; Case runs a strictly needs-based aid office. At schools that have discretionary funds to offer merit aid and meet competition, the rewards for asking for an upgraded offer are even better.

Cry and share. Amherst and other need-based schools will take family issues that don't appear on financial aid forms into consideration. "If you are spending money to help grandma in the nursing home, tell us more about it," says Case. Other situations that can get you more aid include non-custodial parents who won't help pay for college, parents who have good jobs now but still haven't recovered from a year or two of recent unemployment and costly health problems.   Continued...

Graduates celebrate receiving a Masters in Business Administration from Columbia University during the year's commencement ceremony in New York in this May 18, 2005 file photo. FINANCIAL/GRADUATES REUTERS/Chip East/Files