| WASHINGTON, March 28
WASHINGTON, March 28 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.
-- Flaunt your popularity. If you've got a better aid offer
from a competitive school, do send it to the school you really
want to attend, but be gracious about it. Note that you really
want to go to School A, but money is really tight, and the
generous offer from School B is making it hard. Threats about
going elsewhere are likely to be met with "good luck there." And
even those schools that will try to match competitive aid offers
won't do that if the school isn't a comparable kind of school.
-- Think long and hard about your choices. The biggest
change in college finance in recent years is in the attitudes of
parents and students, suggests Mark Kantrowitz of FastWeb, a
scholarship search website that surveys its users every year. "A
greater percentage of students don't attend their first choice
school because of money than because they don't get in," he
says. Last year, one in four students who originally intended to
go to a private college went to a state school instead, and one
in 10 students went the other way, primarily because of
affordability. Kantrowitz says he's seeing increased sensitivity
to the bottom line cost of college and to the return on
investment -- what will the student be able to earn after
So, be judicious. If your child wants to major in theater
and can't go to Pricey Private without accumulating $50,000 or
more in loans, maybe Good Old State U is the better bet. There
is a lot of research showing that great students do well
wherever they go, both in college and afterwards. And if your
child is headed towards a career that requires graduate school,
it's good to not blow your whole nest egg on the undergraduate
-- Think creatively about other solutions. It's not uncommon
for students now to start their college career (or supplement it
in summers) with community college courses that cost less.
Taking pre-requisites this way can shave a costly semester or
more off school. A high school senior who takes a gap year to
work and save before heading off to college can offset some
college costs with those savings. And if that deferral strategy
puts him in college at the same time as a younger sibling, that
can double the amount of aid the parents might receive down the
-- Fill all the gaps. Once you've received the best aid
package you're going to get and have settled on a school, you
still have to come up with the cash to pay the bill, probably in
a couple of months. Home equity lines of credit now have lower
rates than many college loans; refinancing a home mortgage is
another way to make it work. Many schools that won't negotiate
too much on their price will let you pay tuition monthly instead
of in one budget-busting check a semester. That can help cash
flow a little. And you'll need all the help you can get.