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Paying for College

Winning the Financial Aid Game

Even the most expensive schools may be within reach with these strategies.

Don't rule out the college of your freshman's dreams because you think it's too expensive.

Experts say marketing a four-year college education resembles marketing airline tickets: Schools charge full price to those students who can afford to pay, then offer discounted "fares" to everyone else to fill their classrooms.

When you receive a financial-aid offer, don't assume that the numbers are written in stone.

"Can you match this?" If your child has received a better offer, let financial-aid officers know about it when you make your case. The school may not be willing to match it, especially if your child is one of many similar students the school has admitted. But if a college really wants your child, the strategy may work.

"Take another look, please." Sometimes it helps to get a school to reopen your file. While the methodology for calculating federal aid tends to be cut and dried, financial-aid officers have a lot more leeway in doling out money and other assistance that comes directly from the school.


You can -- and should -- appeal a school's offer of need-based financial aid if your income on last year's tax return was higher than usual for any of the following reasons:

  • You converted a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. The rollover boosts your taxable income, which is the most important variable in computing your eligibility for financial aid.

  • You received a one-time windfall. If you can document -- with previous years' tax returns, for instance -- that last year's bonus, insurance settlement, inheritance or commission was a one-time event, your aid award should be recomputed.

  • Your child has been receiving social security survivor's benefits. Those payments end at age 18, but if your child was younger than 18 last year, the benefits are included as income in aid formulas unless you protest.


You may also be able to successfully appeal an award if you expect your income to drop because you lost your job, became disabled, separated from or divorced your spouse, or retired.

Out-of-the-ordinary expenses can sway an aid officer to make changes, too.

"Have we forgotten something?" If an applicant inadvertently omits information from financial-aid forms, initial awards will have to be estimated and possibly revised later.

"Remember us?" Let colleges know about any change in your family's financial status. Unemployment, a business failure, or the disability or death of a breadwinner could all lead to more aid.