Now is the season when acceptance letters begin to arrive for a lot of seniors, and with those come financial aid packages. The bad news is that very few students receive "full ride" scholarship or aid packages that cover everything. (The most-quoted number I could find was about 20,000 per year, or 0.3% of applicants, though that number is possibly outdated. The NCAA says about 2% of high school athletes get college scholarships.) The good news is that around 88% of students do get some sort of discount. When you get your aid offer, you're very likely to want it to be more. You're also pretty likely to need it to be more, though wanting and needing are different. How do you ask for more money?
First, be empathetic. This is really hard to do. When you get a disappointing aid offer, it's really easy to think that the schools don't understand your situation or are just being greedy. They do understand, and they're not being greedy. They think about your circumstances and needs, and they also think about the circumstances and needs of all the other students they accept, and they have to balance those. Colleges have limited budgets just like everybody else. Even at this stage you should be actively moving beyond the Am I Worthy? mindset and treating this like a relationship. So take a few deep breaths, feel your disappointment and possible feelings of betrayal, and go back to thinking of the Financial Aid officers as humans (because they are) and work with them as such.
Next, talk to your family and understand how much more you need. This needs to be specific, in dollar terms. You're not just asking the college for "more money." You're asking them for "the $1,500 per year more that I need in order to attend." Or whatever your amount is. If the additional amount you need is more than a few thousand dollars, then it's not likely to happen, so be realistic. Hopefully you've been talking to your family about money before now, so you have an idea of how much you realistic can afford to spend and therefore know how much more you realistically need. If this is the first conversation, understand that it may not go smoothly the first time but that you need to persist anyway. When you have a good grasp of how much more money you need, you can begin to figure out how to ask.
Do this yourself. A lot of the advice out there for asking for more money is directed at parents, not students. A lot of parents will want to do the appealing, because they're the ones paying, or because they want to talk about circumstances with the school they don't want to share with you, or because they just really want to help. It's fine if your family wants to get involved, but make sure that you're doing it yourself as much as possible. This is about taking ownership--literally--and being an active part of your relationship with the school. It's also about showing the school that you're a mature and self-driven person who is worth a larger aid package.
This requires you, of course, to be honest with yourself about how valuable you might be to the school. If your test scores or class rank are much higher than the college's average and they would really like to have you to boost their reputation, then they might be more willing to work with you on funding. If you've had a really good experience building a relationship with the school and feel like they want you as much as you want them, then they may be more willing to work with you on funding. If you feel a little surprised that you got accepted and nobody there has talked to you in person, you may not be first in line for more funding. Again, be empathetic, and see what you can do between now and May to be more valuable to them.
The primary way that you'll ask for more money is to explain the circumstances, with evidence and documentation, that make your financial need greater than what they say it is. Schools base your financial need on the information given in the FAFSA. If there are circumstances that change your need beyond what's in there, or if something has changed since you submitted it, then let them know. Provide documentation. If a college wants to meet your financial need, and you demonstrate that your need is higher, then you can make it easier for them to give you some more funds.
If your FAFSA is accurate and there aren't demonstrable other needs, then you have to move from asking for more need-based money to more merit-based money. Most, but not all, schools will let you appeal for more merit aid, but it gets a lot more tricky. (Go back and re-read the paragraph above about being honest with yourself.) While the process and evidence may be a little different, then idea is the same; how do you demonstrate that your merit and value to the school are higher than what you've already demonstrated? Perhaps your grades have improved drastically since you sent off your transcript; perhaps you've completed an impressive and self-directed project they'd like to know about; perhaps you've had a breakthrough experience that makes you an even better fit for the school and you can write about that; perhaps other universities' merit offers have ben much higher and you can use that as evidence. Just as with need-based aid, for merit-based aid it will go a lot better if you have circumstances that weren't part of your original application and if you have solid evidence.
While it's perfectly reasonable and normal to ask for more money because you need it to make things work, you should not think of this process as a negotiation. You're not just haggling for a lower price. Schools look unfavorably on haggling--remember, even if you pay full price they're spending even more to have you there--and aren't likely to say yes "just because you asked." You also don't want to waste your time or anyone else's by going through an appeal for every aid package you receive. You'll want to appeal to your top-choice school. Even it's not your top-choice school, you may also want to appeal to the school that offered you the most generous package--they're demonstrating with dollars that they think you'd be good for them, so they may be willing to up their offer even more. But there's probably not a strong reason to make appeals to more than two colleges.
For the one or two schools you decide to appeal, look over their website and materials they send you to see what their appeals process is. Each school does it a bit differently, so you want to make sure you're following the steps they want you to follow.
Even though the financial aid appeal will go through the Financial Aid office, you should also talk to your admissions counselor. Once you get accepted, you should be sending that person a thank-you anyway. After all, they made your case with the admissions committee and defended you over choosing someone else for that place. So let the admissions counselor know that you're really honored and excited to be accepted, and now you're just working with the financial aid office to see if it will actually be possible. Since that person is already invested in you, she may be able to help you out or give advice.
Be honest with schools as well as yourself. If your aid package, even if it's disappointing, isn't a deal-breaker, then don't tell an aid office that it is. They know that if you're appealing an aid offer then you really want to go there, and they know--based on years of experience and statistical models--you're actually likely to go there even if they don't raise your aid package. So don't be dramatic. But if the aid package is indeed a deal-breaker, then say so. Let the school know that you won't be attending, and that the only reason you're not attending is because of cost. It may not affect your case, but it will be good feedback that can help the whole system.
But it may affect your case. Here's a very inspirational, and therefore un-typical, story. One of my younger brothers was applying to college (this is about six years ago). He got a good aid package from his top-choice school, but a much better one from his second-choice school. Like $10,000 better. He decided that the package from the second-choice college was too good to pass up. So he called his admissions counselor at the top-choice school just as a courtesy to say thank you and let him know that he'd be taking the other school's offer. "The only reason you're not coming here is because of money?" the admissions counselor asked. "That's right," my brother said, "I'd really like to go to your school, but forty thousand dollars in loans is a lot of money." "Don't do that. Give me 24 hours," said the counselor. And sure enough, the next morning the top-choice school matched the second-choice's school package, increasing his aid by $10,000 per year. So my little brother went to his pick of schools. Few colleges are small enough for the admissions counselor to remember you that well and have that much sway, and few students have as strong an application as my little brother. But these things happen, and it's okay for you to look for ways to let it happen to you
However your aid packages look, and however the appeals go, here are the basic ideas to remember:
Appealing an aid package is normal--most schools will tell you exactly how to do it. Follow their instructions.
The more details and documentation you have, the better.
Don't go through the appeal with more than one or two schools.
Be honest with all the parties involved: the school, your family, and yourself.
When it comes to money, bureaucracy, and/or disappointment, it's best to remember the famous line from The Godfather. It's strictly business, it's not personal.
[This post originally ran on January 19 last year. But it's advice worth repeating, especially this time of year.]