Think the hard work is done once your kid is accepted to college? Any parent who has been through the college admissions process can tell you that's actually when the hard work begins. After a student is accepted, families get just a few weeks to decipher financial aid awards, study personal budgets, and explore loan options before the tuition deposit is due. That deadline is usually May 1, but some schools allow a little more time.
With tuition hikes outpacing inflation, not to mention mom and dad's pay raises, I'm sure there are plenty of parents who look at what the college expects them to contribute and think: No way.
Want to ask for more cash? Here are some dos and don'ts from financial aid directors and college financing experts.
Don't be afraid to ask: It can be uncomfortable going back to a college and saying that you need more money, but financial aid officers say it's common these days. Mick Endersbe, a financial planner with Sagepoint Financial in Duluth who spent years focusing exclusively on college planning, coaches his clients to ask two questions of financial aid officers: "Is there anything else we can be doing as a family?" and "Does additional money ever become available?" He said families might learn when to call back and see if any funding is released from students who don't end up enrolling. Sometimes they're told about scholarships available from specific academic departments.
Do explain your finances: Colleges only know as much about your financial circumstances as you share on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and if the school requires it, the College Scholarship Service (CSS)/Financial Aid Profile. "They don't know any extenuating circumstances. They don't know how badly your child wants to go to their school," Endersbe said.
Explain why the expected family contribution is unaffordable. Kristine Wright, financial aid director at the University of Minnesota, wants to know if a parent lost a job, if medical expenses are draining a family's bank accounts, or if crushing consumer debt is eating up cash flow. All of these circumstances can change the expected family contribution, she said. The U asks families to share this info by filling out what's called a "special circumstances appeal." Other schools say a letter detailing the changes is fine. Contact the school for its specific procedure.
Do share: Did you get a better package from one school? Let other school financial aid offices know. But don't expect them to simply match the best offer, because many schools don't. That's St. Olaf College in Northfield's policy, said Kathy Ruby, the school's dean of financial aid. Still, she likes to see what other schools offer for need-based aid, especially if the offers vary greatly. If they do, it's possible that one school has more accurate and detailed financial information. There's also a chance that one school made a mistake. Best to find that out before the student makes a decision.
Do your research: Colleges have classes to fill and bottom lines to meet. Don't forget that. "Parents need to treat this as a consumer purchase. They're purchasing an education from the college," said Ronald Ramsdell, founder of College Aid Consulting Services in Minneapolis. You need to learn as much as possible about a school, its benefit, and its cost before paying the tuition bill. Because it's far harder to research a college than a vacation destination, some families spend hundreds of dollars to hire a consultant like Ramsdell, who has been advising students about financial aid for two decades. Or they can read up on a school's financial aid practices using "How to Get Money for College," a guide Ramsdell recommends, or sites such as www.collegeboard.org and www.finaid.org.
Do compare apples to apples: Colleges will present their financial aid offers in various formats and will include different pieces of information. For example, "not all schools present the full cost of attendance on an award letter," Ruby said. "So do research on their website to make sure you understand the full cost of attending the institution. Make sure you are comparing the correct net costs." Net costs, not the sticker price, is what really counts. After grants and scholarships, a $50,000 private college can cost less than a $15,000 state school. Search "compare aid" and "net price calculator" at www.collegeboard.org for useful tools.
Do think long term: Make sure that fat scholarship doesn't end after your freshman year, or that you're not overlooking money that becomes available when you're a senior, Wright said. And if the school's financial aid package consists mostly of loans, think hard about whether you can really afford to go there. To pay off a loan in a decade with a monthly payment of $345, a graduate with $30,000 in student debt would need a job that pays $43,200 annually, according to a chart from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education's site www.getreadyforcollege.org. Wright also cautions families who say they'll just have to dip into the retirement fund.
Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @kablog.