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What To Do When Your College Financial Aid Offer Stinks

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Is this the scene in your house?

Your son or daughter has their heart set on attending their dream college which just happens to be expensive.

You know that unless the financial aid package offers substantial aid, your family won’t be able to afford the tuition. Your daughter is accepted to her dream college but when the award arrives, it’s nothing close to what you need to make this a wise financial decision.

Parents understand the financial realities of paying for a college education. Students, however, are making the decision with their hearts. Most can’t see the bigger picture – the financial picture. What can you do if you receive a lackluster financial aid award?

1. Compare awards.

My daughter applied to numerous colleges. All the awards were different. Some offered no aid beyond student loans and work study. Others offered grants and scholarships. One offered her a full-ride scholarship. Unfortunately, this was not from her dream college. Her dream college gapped her – they did not meet the difference between the cost of attendance and what we were expected to pay.

The first thing we did was to sit down and compare all the awards. Most colleges use the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet. This makes it simple to compare aid awards side by side and see the actual bottom line. If the college doesn’t provide this, you can download a copy and plug in the figures. Look at the bottom line. Which college gives you the best financial value? This means you want your student to graduate with minimal debit, or if possible, no debt.

2. Use large awards as leverage.

Since one of the colleges that offered her admission also offered her a full-ride scholarship, we had plenty of leverage. We could use this award and approach the other colleges offering her admission. If your student’s dream college doesn’t offer her a substantial aid package, use the large offer for leverage.

Have your student approach the financial aid officer. Let the officer know that the college is her first choice, but the aid package is not enough for her to attend. Then ask if they can match the other offers or at least increase the aid package. These appeals are common and most colleges will consider the request and review and adjust your financial aid. The kicker is they have to “want” your student.

3. If your student’s dream college won’t budge, consider the other awards.

If the college won’t budge, it’s time to make some difficult choices: Attend the dream college and graduate with debt, or consider one of the other colleges with a better financial aid package. This can be a very difficult discussion to have with your student, but a necessary one. Revisit the colleges that offered aid. Things could have changed since she applied. One of the other colleges might be an even better fit: both emotionally and financially.

My daughter realized when her dream college didn’t provide enough aid, she had to move on. It was a tough pill to swallow but the logical decision. She fell in love with her second choice college and thanks me every day that I encouraged her to consider this college over her dream college. If she had attended, she would have graduated with $75,000 in debt. Now, she has minimal student loans that are almost all paid off.

Could we have avoided this disappointment? Yes. Before applying we should have had the money talk – a conversation about what we could afford to pay and what we expected her to contribute. We should have also discussed what will happen if her dream college does not come through with aid. This conversation would have prepared her for the disappointment when the award arrived.

[Looking for more tips from the TeenLife Experts? Here's the real deal on college loan debt.]

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Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parenting for College blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.

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